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The forest for the greed

Polluters helped the Bush administration write its energy policy. The pharmaceutical industry got its way in the Medicare drug law. So why would anyone be surprised that new federal forest regulations favor loggers over the public interest?

Surprised, no. Disappointed, yes. The most important forest protections have been diluted to the point of encouraging exploitation.

For the past couple of decades, two specific requirements had to be met before the federal government could allow loggers and other business interests into the forests. No longer.

One, the "viability" rule required the government to maintain "viable populations of existing native and desired nonnative" animals. Under the administration's rewrite, forest managers will be held to a more ambiguous standard to "support diversity of native plant and animal species." In the convoluted world of environmental regulation, changing a few words can mean the difference between survival and decline for critical species of fish, birds and other animals.

Also, the public will have even less say in what happens. In another rule change, forestry officials will be allowed to forgo environmental impact statements when they write forest management plans. Instead of conducting an extensive hearing process, those officials will be allowed to decide for themselves how and when the public is involved. This change ignores the fact that federal forests belong not to bureaucrats but to all Americans.

Admittedly, the current system had grown unnecessarily litigious and cumbersome. But the administration has gone too far the other way, and there is good reason to doubt the wisdom of leaving decisions on a forest's future in the hands of a few administrators. The dice in that game are loaded.

The man who oversees the U.S. Forest Service is Mark Rey, a lobbyist for the timber industry before his appointment, and it is clear whose side he is on. Since he has been in the job, the Forest Service has grown increasingly hostile to its own professional staff. One of those was biologist Kristine Shull, who was threatened with pay cuts or firing if she didn't sign off on the sale of 3,000 acres of old-growth trees by stating, falsely, that they were dead, the online magazine Salon reported. She refused and the stress drove her into medical leave, giving her supervisor an opening to approve the sale. Dozens of biologists, botanists and ecologists told similar stories.

We know who will have the most influence under the new regulations _ business interests with friends in high places. The timber industry made sure of that by contributing generously to the campaigns of Bush and other Republicans, and even a few Democrats. Three of Bush's elite fundraisers are top timber executives, the Los Angeles Times reported.

You don't have to be a tree-hugger to understand the danger. Clear-cut logging and other development in federal forests threaten not only wildlife but also the quality of human life. Forests help purify water and air and provide a variety of recreational opportunities. When they are logged, taxpayers are the losers because it costs the government more to build logging roads than it receives in payments.

The Bush administration has done Americans a disservice by tilting forest regulations in favor of greed over green.