Economic efficiencies collide with environmental use

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WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has continued to relax environmental
regulations, most recently with an overhaul of federal forest management
policy. Under the new guidelines, forest managers will consider the health
of a whole forest instead of specific plant and animal species in making
decisions. Economic factors will have equal priority with ecological
health. Public comment will be curtailed. Out with animal counts and rafts
of scientific reports; in with logging and industry and the policing of
off-road vehicles (U.S. Forest Service personnel will have more time on
their hands for that).

The rules, announced two days before Christmas, went into effect with their
recent appearance in the Federal Register.

But while the new forest management rules continue President George W.
Bush's emphasis on economic efficiencies in environmental management, they
also continue a theme of Bush environmental policies in that they collide
with trends on the ground. Tourism to wilderness areas has doubled in less
than a decade, a clear enough indication that whole forest health has been
served and that broad public comment is in order on use decisions.

Instead, by shifting the close focus of forest service personnel hours to
the minor violation represented by off-roaders, the rules open much wider
swaths of wilderness to exploitation. Timber companies and related
industries are poised to move in. Tourists won't follow; anyone who has
driven through Washington state, with its roadside Potemkin tree stands and
its endless acres of clear-cut stumps behind them, will know the feeling.

Likewise, in easing regulation of Western public lands, Bush and company
have issued record numbers of oil and gas drilling permits while actual
wells in the ground have declined, the Bureau of Land Management reports.
The Wilderness Society, in publicizing the BLM report finding, notes a 62
percent increase in drilling permit approvals on Western public lands in
2004; yet "the number of new wells that were drilled declined by nearly 10
percent - despite high natural gas prices," in theory at least a stellar
predictor of oil and gas exploration.

One clear insinuation of these numbers is that oil and gas companies are
stockpiling permits and leases while the getting is good, in the words of
the Wilderness Society's Dave Alberswerth.

"This information confirms that the oil and gas industry has plenty of
access to our public lands, despite their complaints to the contrary," he
added. "It also raises the question of why BLM continues to issue leases in
sensitive areas like Utah and Colorado's wild canyon country."

Similarly, BLM data indicates that it manages more than 42 million acres
currently under lease, with less than 12 million of those actually in
production. Pete Morton, also with the Wilderness Society, said on its Web
site, "With 30 million acres of leased land in the Rocky Mountain West not
in production and the increasing surplus of drilling permits, there is no
reason why the BLM must continue to include environmentally-sensitive
public lands in their regular oil and gas lease sales in Colorado, Utah and
Wyoming."

For the same reason, environmentalists have seized on these figures to ask
why the Bush administration continues to include the Alaska National
Wildlife Refuge as a planned-for oil and gas exploration area in upcoming
national energy legislation. One reason is that ANWR represents the
granddaddy of all oil and gas exploration; opening the refuge wouldn't add
any great deal to national energy resources, but after a decade of
resistance it would send a message that there's no resisting the energy
industry.

Republicans are determined to open ANWR in the 109th Congress, with its
expanded GOP majority in both chambers, the Senate and the House of
Representatives. Few if any are bold enough to predict exactly how the
highly-charged vote will fall out. But having failed to open ANWR by only a
little in each of the two previous congressional sessions, Republicans feel
good about their chances.

But in light of the latest BLM data, how many producing wells ANWR would
provide is a real question.