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As the executive director of a small but feisty anti-logging group called the Superior Wilderness Action Network (SWAN), Ray Fenner has spent the better part of the past 12 years tangling with the federal government. He has lost track of the number of assorted administrative appeals and lawsuits he's filed during that time, most of them brought in opposition to government timber sales or road building in northern Minnesota's Superior National Forest.
While SWAN has seldom enjoyed outright victories, Fenner says the group has had an impact. Simply by letting the Forest Service know that someone is watching, he says, SWAN has made the agency stick closer to its own rules and regulations. That belief has helped Fenner maintain a measure of optimism. In the last week, though, his outlook has turned decidedly bleaker.
"It's time to send the Historical Society up the Superior to videotape these forests, so at least our children and grandchildren will know what they used to look like," Fenner says. "I really think we're about to cross a line, and it will be too late to save these forests. We're going to have nothing but clearcuts."
Fenner's alarm stems from the Bush administration's call for a sweeping overhaul of the way the Forest Service manages the country's 192 million acres of national forests. Unveiled on Thanksgiving Eve--a classic bit of Beltway timing aimed at reducing public scrutiny--the proposal would change the rules under which the Forest Service develops its long-term management plans for National Forests.
In the official announcement, Forest Service associate chief Sally Collins declared that the new approach would "better harmonize the environmental, social, and economic benefits of America's greatest natural resource--our forests and grasslands." The new rules are expected to streamline the decision-making processes and, as the Forest Service tells it, put an end to the "analysis paralysis" that has beset the agency. In so doing, they would also eliminate a 25-year-old requirement that the agency conduct extensive studies known as environmental impact statements; place new restrictions on public participation; and cede more authority to local forest managers in deciding whether or not to approve timber sales--even, the critics charge, when such sales run contrary to the long-term plans.
In the timber industry, the proposed changes are being greeted with unbridled enthusiasm. "It seems like we've finally got some commonsense management in Washington. We're really hoping that these new rules will cut down on court cases and save us all a lot of money," says Sharon Hahn, the executive director of the Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers, an organization of some 135 independent timber industry workers based in the Arrowhead town of Two Harbors.
Environmentalists say no one should be surprised that the Bush administration would push for such an industry-friendly proposal. After all, they point out, the top man at the Forest Service--Under Secretary of Agriculture Mark Rey--spent much of his professional life as an industry lobbyist, serving as an executive or an officer of such trade groups as the American Forest and Paper Association, the National Forest Products Association, the American Forest Resource Alliance, and the American Paper Institute.
The effect the new rules will have in Minnesota is still unclear. The Forest Service is in the midst of developing new long-term management plans for the state's two national forests, the Chippewa and the Superior. According to Kris Reichenbach, a Forest Service spokeswoman in the agency's Duluth office, both plans are being developed under the old regulations. They are expected to be finalized next October.
In the end, that might not matter much. Because local forest managers will likely be given additional authority, critics argue, they are also likely to be susceptible to additional pressures. "I think this is really going to set up the local forest managers to be leaned on politically," says the Sierra Club's Hanson. "They're going to have the sawmill managers pounding on their desks demanding that they put more timber up for sale. Well, they live in these towns, and it's going to be very difficult for them to resist."
Alan Ek, chairman of the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota, finds such doomsaying overstated. "In the last decade, the planning regulations got terribly complex, and the forest managers had so many considerations to take into account, it became very difficult to make any decisions. As a result, the timber harvest in the Chippewa dropped by about two-thirds over the course of the decade," Ek says.
Under the new rules, Ek expects there will be an increase in logging on federal lands in Minnesota. But he doubts it will reach the level of timber harvest in the early '90s. "We'll still have a very controlled managerial process with a lot of directives and guidelines," Ek contends. "As a friend of mine said, 'Forest management isn't rocket science. It's a whole lot more complicated.'"
For SWAN's Ray Fenner, the prospect of increased logging in the Superior raises another complicated prospect: the possibility that frustrated activists will begin to take direct action. "Grassroots groups like SWAN are falling by the wayside left and right. Foundations aren't giving out any money," Fenner explains. SWAN, he points out, received less than $6,000 in donations this year, well down from its peak of $60,000 in 1998.
"Right now, we environmentalists are all in a real funk. People don't know where to turn, what to do. Well, there's nothing left to do but protest," he adds. "I'm 48, a little old for that sort of thing. But I think you'll see groups like Earth First! becoming a lot more active."