By MIKE JENSEN
and The Associated Press
Describing an agency paralyzed by litigation and paperwork, the heads of the U.S. Forest Service told Congress Wednesday that managing national forests is getting harder raising the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman testified that Forest Service managers spend about half their time meeting burdensome regulations created by acts of Congress and court order.
''Frequently, this onerous process does little to improve the quality of agency decisions,'' Veneman told the House Resources Committee.
And that does not include the time spent on the approximately 5,000 legal actions currently filed against the Forest Service involving timber sales, water rights and claims under the National Environmental Protection Act, Undersecretary Mark Rey said.
"That's not too far off," said Stanislaus National Forest timber manager Dan Young, responding to Veneman's comments.
During a meeting with Mother Lode loggers last month, Stanislaus Supervisor Ben del Villar said there has been an increase in "sophistication" by environmentalists appealing timber sales. Once an appeal of a timber sale is upheld on one national forest, del Villar said, the groups instantly notify other groups so they can try the same appeal.
Most of the appeals filed against the Stanislaus have come from environmental groups outside the area; some local environmentalists have sided with the Forest Service, urging them to overturn the appeals.
The appeals process was created years ago by the Forest Service to allow forest users a way to appeal concerns up the agency's chain of command, avoiding costly legal battles. While the appeals are usually made by environmentalists, it has also been used by loggers, ranchers and off-road-vehicle riders.
More than 200 appeals by such groups have been filed against the recently adopted Sierra Nevada Framework, which calls for less logging and grazing on 11.5 million acres.