Officials said their intent was to improve the forest management rules approved by the Clinton administration two months before President Bush took office. The new rules would affect some 190 million acres of forests and grasslands overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.
Democrats accused the administration of attempting to "undo most of the environmental safeguards that protect our nation's forests."
Eight senators and seven House members complained in a letter to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth that the new measures "establish no minimum standard for protecting species, no rigorous procedures for ecological studies and, in fact, no solid protections for wildlife and environmental sustainability."
Environmental groups called it a clear-cut rollback of decades of forest protections, reports CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts. Not so, said the administration; they said the plan to streamline forest management simply cuts all the red tape.
"This is a roll forward," said Sally Collins, associate chief of the National Forest Service. "This is a roll forward in forest planning. It's revolutionary; it's going to take forest planning and roll it back into the hands of people who care about the national forests."
Specifically, the plan puts the power to decide how to best use the country's 155 national forests into the hands of local forest managers. It would allow them to open up the forests to development without first going through a rigorous examination of environmental impacts, and without specific standards to maintain local fish and wildlife populations.
Environmentalists argue that too many of those managers are too heavily influenced by loggers.
"What you end up with are national forests that are managed totally and completely for the benefit of the timber industry," said Phil Clapp of the National Environmental Trust. "It opens the door to enormous logging, going all the way back to the bad practices of the last 40 years."
Chris West, vice president of the timber industry's American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Ore., said the proposal restores a common-sense approach to balancing environmental and economic interests.
"What you're not going to have is a bunch of time wasted and opportunities for environmentalists to be obstructionist at a macro-planning level," West said. "To think we can maintain every species on every acre is just a fantasy."
The proposal rewrites a Clinton era rule that made the "ecological sustainability" of forests a top priority. The Bush White House argued that the regulation was burdensome, complicated and impossible to implement.
And, they pointed out, taking forest policy out of Washington and down to the local management level should invite more input from the community of people who actually use the land.
"From logging families to environmentalists to recreationalists and wildlife enthusiasts, the whole spectrum needs to be involved," said the Forest Service's Collins. "All those people care."
But, environmentalists argue, even the timing of the proposal's release – buried under the president's announcement of a 9-11 commission, and as people were heading home for the Thanksgiving holiday – suggested a strong desire to avoid public scrutiny, not invite it.
The rule change is the latest administration measure to allow more timbering in national forests. Mr. Bush and Western lawmakers in both parties pushed measures in Congress this year to cut down excess trees they blamed for fueling wildfires that blackened more than 6.5 million acres this year.
Last year, the new administration declined to appeal a judge's decision overturning Clinton regulations putting nearly 60 million acres of undeveloped forestland off limits to road-building and timbering.