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Bush order eases rules protecting wildlife in forests

By Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times

National forest managers will not have to adhere to strict wildlife protections that have been in place for more than two decades under a temporary rule issued yesterday by the Bush administration.

The rule is not the last word on the protections, which since 1982 have directed the U.S. Forest Service to manage habitat to assure that "viable populations" of fish and wildlife are maintained in national forests. Forest Service officials could not say when a final regulation will be published.

Issued in 1982 by the Reagan administration, the viability requirement was often cited in lawsuits that forced the Forest Service to sharply reduce timber cutting in the Pacific Northwest and other regions with declining populations of owls and other animals.

Many conservationists consider it the Forest Service's single most important safeguard for wildlife. "It's been the (agency's) only rule protecting wildlife," said Andy Stahl, executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

The Bush administration proposed nearly two years ago to weaken the requirement as part of a revision of forest planning rules that had been rewritten by the Clinton administration.

Forest Service spokesman Joseph Walsh said that there was confusion over the two rewrites and that the temporary directive, published yesterday in the Federal Register, was intended as a clarification.

It states that until final regulations are issued, forest managers can follow the 1982 regulations if they wish but that they are "not in effect." Instead, it directs managers to base forest plans on "the best available science."

There is no mention of species viability in the temporary rule. Walsh insisted it remains a concern to the Forest Service. "What we're trying to do is ensure all species have a viable habitat," he said. "If that's not good enough I don't know what to say."

Environmentalists called yesterday's edict a precursor to a formal abandonment of the viability protections.

"This is another effort to sidestep the law and eliminate accountability ... and give free rein to exploitation of forests," argued Earthjustice attorney Todd True.

The "best science," he added, could mean radically different things to different managers. "A forest supervisor in Georgia can come out at a completely different place than one in Idaho about what is necessary to protect wildlife."

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