'Meaningless' Bush protection plan faces legal complaint

A formal complaint against President Bush's plans for protecting forests and wooded areas in the US has been filed this week by a coalition of conservation groups called Earthjustice.

In opposition of the Bush Administration's national forest plans (see related story), the coalition claimed that the regulations intended to ensure on-going protection of national forests, wildlife and the environment had been watered down so heavily that they were now "virtually meaningless".

Formed under the so-called "Healthy Forest" rules, the plans would cover America's 192 million-acre national network of forests and grasslands, which run across 48 states and count for around 8% of the country.

Representing conservation groups such as Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, Earthjustice has challenged the President's regulations on the following grounds:

  • They fail to include the environmental protection measures mandated by Congress in the National Forest Management Act of 1976
  • They reverse over 20 years of protection for wildlife and other resources without any sound or scientific basis for doing so, and without providing any adequate replacement measures
  • They were crafted through a flawed process - the environmental impacts of this far-reaching action were never analysed and many significant changes first appeared in the final rule, depriving the public of an opportunity to comment on them

    "The new Bush forest rules aren't rules at all - they're more like suggestions," Earthjustice attorney Trent Orr pointed out. "They turn forest management to mush, mocking the intent of Congress and undermining public participation in the process. Agencies need leadership and clear guidance, not this wink and a nod that encourages the exploitation of the public's resources."

    Under the Reagan Administration, basic protection measures for non-timber sources like wildlife and water were put into place, but President Bush has gradually gone about deregulating environmental protection measures across the board (see related story).

    In a statement, the coalition accused the Bush Administration of going on "a search and destroy mission for any environmental safeguard that might stand between the administration's industry donors and the public's trees".

    Local conservation groups have also voiced their concern and offered their support of this legal challenge, with ramifications particularly being felt in Vermont, where the Forest Service is currently updating a plan to manage to Green Mountain National Forest.

    According to the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the new regulations would indirectly instruct the Forest Service to ignore their role to monitor local trees and wildlife species.

    "The Bush Administration is eliminating national forest wildlife protections that have been in place and effective for decades," said Sean Cosgrove, forest policy specialist with the Sierra Club.

    "The nation's forests and the people who own them deserve better than this. Americans want to protect the places where they hike, hunt and fish, not turn them over to the logging companies."

    The complaint is being filed as a supplement to a lawsuit filed by the same plaintiffs in November 2004 against a related rule more specifically attacking national forest wildlife and other resource protections.

    By Jane Kettle

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