Down for the count


— A decision made by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman to reverse an appeal response by the recently resigned U.S. Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck couldn't have been a better example of how environmental issues are never black and white, good guy and bad guy scenarios that some extremists portray them to be.

Dombeck's response came in January to the 1997 appeal made by environmental groups to the forest plans on the Routt, Arapaho-Roosevelt and Rio Grande national forests.

Among several concerns listed in the appeal, Dombeck took the side of the environmental groups on population counts. Simply stated, environmental groups said the Forest Service cannot guarantee the health of species in the forest without having accurate populations estimates of all the species in the forest.

And that makes sense. How can officials be absolutely sure that resource practices (mining and logging) on public lands is not terminally affecting species' habitats in the forest if they aren't sure the populations of the animals are strong?

If Dombeck's response held, the Forest Service would have to do the population counts and possibly suspend resource work on the forest.

But then reality set in. Counting every insect, every plant, every bird, every mammal, every reptile and every fish is not feasible. That's when Veneman stepped in.

In late March, Veneman said the population counts didn't have to be done, mainly because the costs are too great and much of the technology to do the research doesn't even exist.

Instead, the Forest Service would depend on in-depth studies at mineral extraction sites on the forest to ensure species habitats aren't being jeopardized.

The reversal was nearly blasphemous for environmentalists, who sent their news release writers running to their computers to spin the inevitable slams against the Bush administration.

Here's an actual quote from one of the news releases, dated April 3, with a headline that reads "Bush Administration War on Environment Continues: Decisions To Protect Wildlife On Colorado Forests Gutted."

"This is another assault in President Bush's all-out war on the environment," said Pam Eaton, a director of the Wilderness Society. "President Bush has killed measures to keep poison out of our water, attacked reasonable controls on destructive mining, and abandoned efforts to protect the planet from greenhouse gas emissions. With this decision, the administration is severely undercutting measures to protect our wildlife heritage on National Forests that were endorsed by the Reagan Administration."

The problem here is that these environmental groups have a legitimate point with the population counts. But getting what they want is impossible to do in a snap of the finger. Forest Service officials say they are researching more ways to estimate populations and say in the future we'll have better numbers.

But instead of understanding the complexities of this issue, the same tired news releases come out attacking President Bush personally for decisions made by his staff.

If anything, the appeal made by the environmental groups sent a message to the Forest Service to consider in the future. With time and resources, the environmental groups will receive better population counts.


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