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WASHINGTON — Forest Service officials have told Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., that they plan to release new rules as early as today to permit a streamlined environmental process for some small timber harvests.

Although Baucus praised the news, the rules could further inflame environmental groups who lost a battle over wildfire legislation on Tuesday.

The rules would exempt from federal environmental laws timber projects in burned-over areas and areas where communities abut forests, according to Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser. The Forest Service is not expected to act on Baucus' call for a similar exemption for small projects in the backwoods.

"This will be a very big deal to small mill owners," Kaiser said. "Max has pushed hard to have the Forest Service implement these new rules, and he thinks it's a great first step for putting people to work in the woods and reducing the threat of wildfires."

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.

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. 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.

Environmentalists say it is part of a larger Bush administration effort to promote logging, while also limiting public input.

"This is another example of the Bush administration weakening environmental protections and cutting the public out of the process," said US Public Interest Research Conservation Advocate Tiernan Sittenfeld.

"What we need to do is focus on protecting communities."

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