Forest Service seeks less red tape; environmentalists say report is a ploy

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WASHINGTON — The Forest Service is considering speeding up land-management projects by streamlining rules protecting the environment and endangered species, according to a draft report.

Among other suggestions, the agency wants to limit court challenges to its decisions, says the draft obtained by The Associated Press.

Nathaniel Lawrence, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the report was a Bush administration effort to circumvent environmental laws.

"This is an agency that doesn't want to be accountable to anybody," Lawrence said. "It wants to rewrite the rules so that it can pay lip service to collaboration and reserve to itself the final, unappealable judgment about what to do and where to do it."

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, dismissed the document as a staff-level draft that won't get a serious review.

"This document had a short and not very useful life, which has already ended as far as this administration is concerned," Rey said.

The report was compiled to address what the agency calls "analysis paralysis" or "process gridlock," which it defines as an inability to finish projects, make decisions or handle other challenges in a timely, efficient way.

According to the document, within two years the agency wants to implement regulations limiting external review of protections for endangered plants and animals.

For instance, the Forest Service wants to allow land-management projects in national forests to go forward while it consults with federal agencies about how to protect endangered species. Currently, the consultation must be done before the projects begin.

"This smacks of a ready, fire, aim approach," said Chris Wood, watershed-programs director for Trout Unlimited.

The report offered a list of "symptoms of process gridlock," including complaints that important work doesn't get done and it takes too much time and money to plan projects.

Such criticism undermines the agency's credibility with the public, it says.

"We need to make the case with both internal and external audiences that the problem exists, that changes are necessary and that their help in making the changes is essential," the report said.

It also said the agency wants to set broad goals and have "action plans" to get work done faster.

Wood, a top aide to President Clinton's Forest Service chief, said these proposals would have the exact opposite of their intended affect by creating more public distrust, dissension and legal challenges.

"Addressing fundamental problems with redundant reviews and other bureaucratic inertia is by definition a good thing," he said. However, "this proposed cure would likely kill the patient."