by J.R. Pegg
(ENS) WASHINGTON --
and environmental groups believe the Bush administration is pushing forward with the broadest and most aggressive effort in history to undermine the environmental regulatory regime that protects the nation's public lands.
Never before, say critics of the administration, has the nation faced such an all encompassing assault on the environmental protections meant to safeguard the nation's forests, wildlife refuges, parks and other public lands.
"This is the most sweeping assault on public lands in modern environmental history," Earthjustice legislative director Mark Hayden told reporters last month.
Across the board, conservationists say, the administration is using the federal rulemaking process, agency authority and regulatory interpretation to push through an agenda that aims to allow development on public lands and limit public participation in agency decisions, regardless of environmental or economic consequences.
The federal government manages some 655 million acres, which is one third of the public lands in the United States. The majority of these lands are managed by the Forest Service and by three agencies within the Department of Interior.
The administration says its policies aim to strike a balance between conservation and economic use and its officials believe such broad changes to public land policy are needed to return balance to regulations they contend stifle economic development.
"Unfortunately, a small cluster of partisan groups who focus exclusively on conflict, punishment and fund raising held a press conference to spread misinformation and deceit," Interior Department press secretary Mark Pfeifle said in a prepared statement released last month.
Pfiefle said the administration has proposed major funding for national wildlife refuges, land conservation programs and national parks. He challenged criticism of the administration's intent to open public lands to further oil and gas development by citing a new Interior Department report that identified opportunities for the development of renewable energy on public lands.
But it would be hard to argue the administration's policies are not far reaching compared to past policy shifts. And of all the administration's policies on public lands, none seek to change the existing regime more than its proposals for managing the national forests.
Four of these proposals make up the administration's Healthy Forests initiative, which it has promoted as a plan to better manage public lands to reduce the risk of wildfires through partnerships with private companies and individuals.
First, the initiative seeks to exempt all projects to thin forests for fire protection from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is the fundamental environmental law for all federal agencies.
Second, the administration wants to give federal land managers greater authority to approve stewardship contracts, which allows companies to trade wildfire reductions services for trees, rather than dollars for trees. This portion of the plan was approved via a rider on the massive omnibus spending bill, passed recently by Congress.
Forest Service officials have touted the stewardship program as an effective way to get the private sector involved in forest thinning, but conservationists worry there are no limits to what kind or size of trees that can be removed and sold.
The two other components of the initiative further aim to ease the approval of forest management plans by limiting public and judicial appeals. The administration says these moves are needed to eliminate delays often brought by environmentalists to forest plans.
"Ironically, while fuels reduction projects are often delayed or prevented due to litigation over the Endangered Species Act requirements, catastrophic fires that could be prevented by these projects can have devastating consequences for a species," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said in December.
But the arguments put forth by the Bush administration don't hold water for the environmental community, who see this initiative as a hand out to the timber industry.
If the administration was serious about thinning forests to limit wildfire dangers, said Mike Leahy, natural resources counsel for Defenders of Wildlife, they would focus on buffering areas where people live. Instead, he said, the administration is "taking advantage of a serious situation" to pay back the timber industry.
Beyond the Healthy Forests initiative, the administration has proposed sweeping changes to the National Forest Management Act regulations and categorical exclusion from NEPA for green logging projects up to 50 acres and salvage or sanitation sales up to 250 acres.
The administration's policies, Leahy said, aim to "systematically dismantle" protections to the national forests and "cut out public participation and reduce environmental protections."
The desire to further open public lands to oil and gas extraction, administration officials say, comes from the nation's need to reduce its dependence on foreign energy sources.
As part of the President's Energy Policy, administration officials have been charged with accelerating oil and gas development on BLM lands and within the National Forests of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
There are currently some 94,000 producing oil and gas wells on the 272 million acres managed by BLM, producing some five percent of the nation's oil and 11 percent of its natural gas. In 2001, the Bush administration issued some 4,850 additional drilling permits for these lands, a record number.
In January, BLM authorized the largest oil and gas project ever on federal lands. This move seeks to authorize the development of some 39,000 new wells on public lands in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. BLM supports the project despite its own evidence that it could damage the Tongue and Powder River watersheds and will adversely affect some 16 species of wildlife.
"We do not believe the public lands and resources should be put off limits to development," Interior Department Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources at a hearing on energy production on federal land Thursday.
Industry officials contend that the public underestimates the cost and regulatory difficulty of oil, gas and mineral extraction within public lands.
A "misperception" exists over the level of protection and environmental analysis required prior to the approval of a drilling project on federal land, said Robert Bayless, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States at Thursday's Senate Committee hearing.
"Contrary to popular myth, the time and costs of preparing environmental studies have increased exponentially in recent years, reaching a level that prevents many smaller companies from considering projects on federal land."
But conservationists argue that the environmental hurdles for these projects should be high and contend the Bush administration wants to give away the nation's resources.
And the oil and gas industry already has access to the vast majority of oil and gas deposits on federal land, said David Alberswerth, BLM program director for The Wilderness Society.
An Interior Department report released in January 2003 found that only 12 percent of technically recoverable natural gas deposits on federal lands in the Rocky Mountain Region are off limits to development, and only 15 percent of oil deposits in the same region are off limits.
The debate should be not if there isn't enough access, Alberswerth said, it should be if there is already too much.
The new report on renewable energy opportunities within public lands, touted by administration officials, was welcomed by some conservationists. Yet they say it is only the first of many steps to identifying and fostering the development of renewable energy on public lands.
Further debate on oil, gas and mineral activities on public lands will come from a range of pending issues, including a renewed administration and Congressional effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development and an expected proposal by the Interior Department to allow further use of public lands for toxic waste disposal.
The President was an outspoken advocate of national parks during his campaign and pledged to fund the $4.9 billion maintenance backlog at the national parks by 2006. So far, he has proposed some $366 million for this maintenance.
Conservationists worry the administration's stated intent to privatize National Park Service employees could leave the agency with less expertise and with a workforce more concerned with preserving their jobs than they are with protecting the parks.
They contend the administration is actively trying to use a repealed 19th century law to allow development through and within parks and other public lands. Passed in 1866, the Revised Statute 2477 (RS2477) permitted highway construction to help commerce move from town to town over public lands.
It was repealed in 1976 under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), but this did not fully invalidate claims that could be shown to be established and valid prior to 1976.
Interior Department Norton said in early January that the disclaimer process can now be used by states, counties and individuals to obtain right of way claims under the repealed law. The rule allows roads and highways to be built along any route presently traced by a road or trail, even if the trail is 150 years old and has never been traveled by a motor vehicle.
The decision, said Craig Obey, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, is "incompatible with conservation principles."
Although the administration has issued few details on how it believes the disclaimer process should be used, some 17 million acres of national park lands could be affected.
Obey said he never imagined the Bush administration's national park policies could be so upsetting to his organization, citing the issue of snowmobiles in Yellowstone as an example.
The administration reversed an NPS decision to eliminate snowmobile use within Yellowstone, despite its own scientific finding that removing snowmobiles was best for the park's environment. The administration and its allies seek to extend this decision to Denali National Park, Obey said.
Another issue regarding Yellowstone is an Interior Department's decision to overturn an NPS finding that the development of a coal fired plant in the Bull Mountains of Montana would adversely affect the park's air quality.
The conservationists at the briefing stressed that it is the vast scope of the President's policy proposals that has them so alarmed. They criticized the administration for its close ties with the industries that seek to monetary gain from natural resources on public lands, and for rolling out policy changes during holidays, late on Fridays and at other times to deflect public scrutiny.
"I hope we aren't going to be looking back fondly at the Reagan administration," Alberswerth said, "but it is starting to look that way."
March 28, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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