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Bush Administration considering changes to NW Forest Plan to 'maximize volume'

The Bush administration is considering changes to the Northwest Forest Plan that would "maximize volume" of timber cut from public lands, possibly including some old-growth stands
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is considering changes to the Northwest Forest Plan that would "maximize volume" of timber cut from public lands, possibly including some old-growth stands, according to documents obtained by The Oregonian.

A memo prepared for natural-resource agency leaders in Washington outlines a three-year timetable to boost timber production from the region while streamlining regulations that industry officials find costly and burdensome.

"Goal is to achieve a balance of conservation and commodity outputs and to keep the promises made the local communities as originally intended under the NWFP," according to the memo, titled "Fixes to the Northwest Forest Plan."

The memo is the work of Portland-based regional executives for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which manage most publicly owned timberlands in the region. Drafted this spring, it has not been released to the public.

Mark Rey, the undersecretary of agriculture who oversees the Forest Service, said the purpose of the memo was to identify ways to boost timber production to levels envisioned when the forest plan was adopted by the Clinton administration in 1994.

Some ideas have been discarded as unworkable, Rey said. But he declined to cite which still were being considered, saying he didn't want to disrupt ongoing discussions between agencies that manage public lands and those that protect species.

"The document was meant to be inclusive of all the options available, not all of the things that we might do," Rey said. "This is not an indication that all of these are going to be pursued."

Rey also said he hoped to find common ground between industry and environmentalists. But he acknowledged that some ideas discussed in the memo would invite controversy.

One cited by environmental advocates is a call to "maximize volume of planned matrix harvest." It is a reference to timberlands that include about 1 million acres of old growth, which environmentalists want to protect from logging.

"This plan fans the flames of the old-growth fight, and we'll be right back where we were in the early 80s or 90s or worse," said Doug Heiken, acting conservation director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council in Eugene.

Another proposal is to amend "survey and manage" requirements that were intended to protect hundreds of plant and animal species that dwell in forests but have proved to be costly and time-consuming.

"I think there would be support across the federal family for doing (this) because we think there's a better conservation buy out there," said Harv Forsgren, the Forest Service's regional forester for the Northwest.

Although the administration can make the changes without direction from Congress, Rey noted that most would require agencies to solicit public comment. "None of this is going to be happening without anybody having a shot at it," he said.

The memo was sent to Washington by Forsgren and Elaine Zielinski, Oregon and Washington director for the Bureau of Land Management. Other ideas contained in the memo suggest: Creating a working group of government lawyers to share strategies to defend against lawsuits by environmental and industry groups. Working with Congress and the White House budget office to secure money to accelerate forest-thinning programs. Redefining roles of federal agencies and advisory groups in implementing the forest plan. Amending the forest plan's Aquatic Conservation Strategy, which limits logging near areas where endangered fish migrate and spawn. Developing recovery plans for endangered species such as salmon and spotted owls.

Heiken said he was encouraged by some ideas contained in the memo, including the recovery plans, and he said that Rey and other administration officials had been willing to listen to their ideas.

But the memo indicates that agency officials in the region are more attuned to industry concerns, Heiken said.

"Most of the stuff on here gives me great concern," he said. "Hopefully these ideas -- some of which are really controversial -- from the region, saner minds in Washington, D.C., will decide there is a better path."

Rey and other administration officials have said for several months that they are planning a significant overhaul of the forest plan. The plan's objectives are sound, but cumbersome processes such as survey and manage have limited harvests, they said.

When the plan was drafted eight years ago, many in the timber industry expected harvests from Northwest forests would be sustained at about 1 billion board feet a year. But production has fallen to less than 200 million board feet in recent years.

"We want to redeem the commitments that the Clinton administration made, and that includes the sustainable level of volume that was promised in the plan," Rey said. "But beyond that, we're pretty open-minded to the options available to get that done."

The administration has not set an internal deadline for revamping the forest plan because officials did not want to repeat mistakes of the Clinton administration, which Rey said failed to anticipate the consequences of some forest plan regulations.

"At the end of the day they were throwing stuff without a full understanding of what the impacts would be," Rey said. "We're moving along as best we can, but this is pretty complicated stuff." Original Article