If the forest regulations unveiled by the Bush administration Wednesday had been in place years earlier, the fight over Northwest old-growth trees and spotted owls could have taken...

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If the forest regulations unveiled by the Bush administration Wednesday had been in place years earlier, the fight over Northwest old-growth trees and spotted owls could have taken a different direction.

Environmentalists’ successful legal challenges to logging in Northwest national forests in the 1980s and early 1990s hinged partly on rules now being set aside in favor of streamlined regulations.

As national forests around the region prepare to overhaul their plans for the first time since the earlier timber wars, environmental veterans warn that the new regulations will help undo a Clinton-era measure that led to dramatic cuts in logging on Northwest national forests. And they say it removes vital tools used in that era to prod the U.S. Forest Service to protect the environment.

Forest Service officials, however, say they are trying to respond to new threats facing Northwest forests — including massive wildfires and invasive weeds — with more speed and agility, and without drawn-out bureaucratic processes that deter public involvement. Widespread logging is largely a thing of the past, they said.

“We’re still arguing about logging, and frankly we’re not doing a lot of logging,” said Linda Goodman, the regional forester who oversees national forests covering 25 million acres in Washington and Oregon.

The new regulations govern how land managers devise 15-year plans for the future of each national forest, governing everything from wildlife protections to logging to recreation.

The new rules replace requirements for highly detailed plans in favor of overarching goals that can guide future decision making, as the agency grapples with changing and often competing demands.

If the new regulations survive expected legal challenges, their effect could be felt throughout the Northwest, where national forests are scheduled to revise long-term plans that guide everything from logging and mining to salmon protection and trail maintenance.

“The litmus test [for the administration’s new regulations] will likely occur with the Northwest Forest Plan, because it is the granddaddy,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of the Portland-based Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

That plan was the federal government’s 1994 answer to U.S. District Judge William Dwyer’s rulings blocking logging until the Forest Service came up with a plan to protect the spotted owl, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It put large stretches of old-growth trees off-limits to chain saws.

While the Endangered Species Act gained much of the attention at the time, it was the less-well-known law governing plans devised by national forests that was the linchpin. Environmentalists successfully argued that the Forest Service hadn’t shown its plans would protect the “viability” of the spotted owl, something required under regulations at the time.

The new regulations would scrap the “viability” language in favor of broader language requiring protection of a diversity of plants and animals. It also would make an environmental-impact statement about the forest plan optional. Dwyer’s rulings over the spotted owl focused on whether those impact statements were adequate.

Getting rid of those provisions could make it harder to hold the Forest Service accountable, and reopen some areas closed to logging by the Northwest Forest Plan, said Todd True, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, who was the lead lawyer on the spotted-owl lawsuits.

“The regulations that were changed by the Bush administration were the fundamental catalyst in the lawsuits over Northwest ancient forests,” he said. “They played that important role because they set standards that the public, or anyone else, could use to be sure that the government was accountable — that there was a yardstick you could measure its actions against.”

Forest Service officials say the new regulations do take into account the needs of animals and plants in the forest, but with a broader eye toward protecting overall habitat, rather than species by species. That’s in keeping with the latest science about how ecosystems work, said Sally Collins, associate chief of the Forest Service and a former forest supervisor of Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest.

“We’ve got to have a regulation that really is allowing us to bring new science in and take old science out,” Collins said. “We’re going to have as much analytical work done to take a look at biological diversity as we have in the past.”

The provisions of the Northwest Forest Plan, written into the plans of individual forests, will be reviewed as each plan comes up for revision, Goodman said.

“They’ll be taking a lot of what the Northwest Forest Plan says and saying, ‘What do we need? Do we need more? Do we need less?’ “

Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, which represents forest-product manufacturers and landowners, said the new regulations would allow environmental studies of individual projects. Those should be more useful than overly broad examinations of programs throughout a national forest or region, he said. It also would help break bureaucratic logjams that environmentalists have used to block legitimate projects, he said.

“The environmentalists aren’t going to like this because they’ve been able to use and abuse the 20-plus-year-old regulations to obstruct activities,” he said. “They want to block things. They want to turn national forests into national parks.”

But Stahl said lifting the requirement for broader environmental-impact statements could neglect the cumulative effects of a myriad of smaller projects.

In Washington, three national forests east of the Cascades could be the first place where the new regulations are put to the test. The Okanogan, Wenatchee and Colville forests are all in the early stages of revising the forest plans. It hasn’t been decided whether those will take the new track or continue down the regulatory path they began on, Goodman said.

Those forests are grappling with questions of how to regulate off-road vehicles, how to deal with forest-fire threats, what areas might warrant additional wilderness protections and whether to maintain limits on cutting large trees, among other things.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com