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Forest Service watchdogs fret over Bush's final moves

Forest Service watchdogs fret over Bush's final moves

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As America anticipates the transition from a Bush administration to an Obama White House, many are wondering what the president-elect will offer in the way of agency direction.

But just as many are watching the outgoing president, wondering which rules and policies he will change before giving up the post.

Eight years ago, a newly elected George W. Bush cried foul, saying the Clinton administration pushed through too many "midnight regulations" in the waning days of the presidency. Now, as Bush prepares for departure, several such regulations are under consideration, many relating to public land and the environment.

Possible rule changes could affect emission standards for small engines, discharges from ships, feedlot pollution, mining on U.S. Forest Service lands, critical habitat for lynx and spotted owls, oil development, mining waste and implementation of NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act.

Already, the Bush administration has taken action on several items, including a recent - and controversial - rule change that allows loaded guns in national parks. That measure was opposed by park rangers, law enforcement, every living former National Park Service director, and a majority of the public who submitted comments on the change.

Supporters included the National Rifle Association.

This week, a second rule change - related to endangered species protections - drew yet more criticism, as well as a smattering of approval from industry. Government agencies now can decide for themselves whether a proposed project threatens protected species, instead of waiting for a review by scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Knowing America's love for wildlife, it's no surprise that President Bush waited until the last second to reveal his administration's true intention - disabling the Endangered Species Act," said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition. "Removing the act's requirement to have trained scientists review federal projects is like taking the tires off an ambulance; it is still an ambulance, but it can't get anyone to the emergency room, and offers a lot less protection."

Of the 300,000 comments received on that new rule, about 1 percent supported the change.

Other recent decisions include new Forest Service guidelines for forest road use, which conservationists say undermine attempts at local control of off-road vehicles.

Meanwhile, here in western Montana, many are keeping a keen eye on an administration plan that would ensure Plum Creek Timber Co. access - for all purposes, including residential subdivision - across neighboring federal lands. The company claims it already enjoys such access, but others say the plan represents an increased access right.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey brokered that deal with Plum Creek over the past couple years, then met stiff opposition from western Montana counties when a draft of the plan was leaked last spring.

Already, many - including Missoula County - are considering legal action if the access plan is signed.

In fact, legal battles over late-term rule changes are not uncommon - Clinton's so-called roadless rule, which would have protected some 58 million acres - remains unresolved even today, and Bush critics now are threatening more of the same.

"This administration has rejected anything with a whiff of science," said Andrew Wetzler, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "So before sulking out the back door, they are going after rules" that protect endangered species.

His prediction: "I think we will see them in court."

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