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WASHINGTON — Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is calling on the Forest Service to issue a new rule to permit a streamlined environmental process for small timber harvests.

In October 1999 a federal district court judge in Illinois struck down the streamlined process, known as categorical exclusions, that the Forest Service had in place.

Since the judge's ruling, the Forest Service has been working to craft a new rule that could stand up in court. In 2000, Baucus urged the Clinton administration's Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck to quickly write a new rule.

"It's now May of 2003," Baucus wrote in a Tuesday letter to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. "I am extremely frustrated that I have to write to the Forest Service again, to ask for yet another status report on a final rule allowing categorical exclusions for small timber sales, or at least providing a new mechanism for allowing small timber sales to move forward quickly."

Under the old rule, categorical exclusions were permitted for timber sales of up to 250,000 board feet of green sticks and 1 million board feet of salvage sticks.

Heartwood, a Bloomington, Ind.,-based forest advocacy group, brought a lawsuit against the Forest Service in which they said that the agency was using the categorical exclusions to skirt environmental laws.

The judge ruled that the categorical exclusions could not simply be based on the number of board feet that were going to be cut. The ruling halted logging on more than 110,000 acres of National Forest land.

Baucus and other defenders of categorical exclusions say they are needed to protect communities from wildfires and that they help small timber companies stay in business.

"Treating small sales differently just makes sense — small sales don't need to go through the same extensive environmental analyses as large sales or other large projects," Baucus wrote in his letter. "Such an approach is highly inefficient and wastes your agency's time and resources."

Representatives of Heartwood say that categorical exclusions should simply be eliminated because there is no way to fix the rule.

"The problem is the Forest Service does not care about what the American public thinks," Heartwood forest watch coordinator Jim Bensman said. "The American public owns the forests and does not want the trees cut. Why shouldn't they have to do a full environmental review?"

Montana environmentalists support categorical exclusions but are leery that the Bush administration's preliminary proposals for a new rule would expand the scope of the exception.

"In Montana we have a history of using this program to put people to work, improve homeowner's safety and restore things like blue ribbon trout streams," said Chris Mehl, the Bozeman-based Northern Rockies spokesman for The Wilderness Society. "Unfortunately, the proposals made by Forest Service officials in Washington would change the categorical exclusions so they would involve large and controversial projects. The danger is that categorical exclusions will be abused."