Cable and network news overlooked Bush's environment rule changes

On December 22, the Bush administration issued controversial new regulations governing national forests. While newspapers across the country covered the change extensively, the new rules, which are expected to take effect next week, were not mentioned on network evening news (ABC, CBS, and NBC) or on cable primetime news (CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News). This pre-Christmas announcement continues a Bush administration pattern of issuing controversial changes to environmental regulations just before holidays and weekends, in a largely successful effort to keep them under the public's radar screen.

As the Los Angeles Times reported on December 23, the new rules contain two major changes to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service planning regulations. The first change puts an end to requiring environmental impact statements when management plans for individual national forests are developed or revised. The Times referred to the 25-year-old requirement, now dropped by the new rules, as “a cornerstone of public involvement in environmental decisions.” The second major change drops a 1982 Reagan-instituted mandate that fish and wildlife be managed in a way that maintains “viable populations of existing native and desired nonnative vertebrate species.” The new rules instead direct managers to provide “ecological conditions to support diversity of native plant and animal species.”

Environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club, oppose the new rules as favoring industry over wildlife and the public. Former Agriculture undersecretary Jim Lyons, who oversaw the U.S. Forest Service during the Clinton administration, told the Los Angeles Times: “It is really a clandestine effort in my mind to subvert much of what the national forests stand for.” Current U.S. Forest Service officials, meanwhile, said the changes “would free them from wasteful and time-consuming paperwork and give them the latitude to more quickly respond to evolving forest conditions and scientific research” ; representatives of the timber industry also favored the rule changes, as the Times noted.

The Bush administration's December 22 issuance is in line with an apparent strategy to minimize attention paid to contentious actions. In 2003, the administration announced on Christmas Eve that they had opened up backcountry trails on federal land to state, county, and municipal governments. A September 21, 2003, USA Today article titled “It's TGIF for the White House when it has bad news” noted: “The week between Christmas and New Year's and the day before national holidays also are popular times to try to slip controversial news under the radar.” The article detailed numerous other controversial announcements made on Fridays or before holidays, including the following environmental policy changes:

  • A November 2002 Friday announcement regarding relaxed enforcement of the Clean Air Act.
  • A Thanksgiving eve 2002 announcement that the administration would give managers of national forests more authority to approve logging with less study of potential environmental problems.