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United States Forest Service news and analysis

Bob Berwyn

New USFS planning regs could limit grassroots inputWatchdogs urge public to comment on rule changeWhen the White River National Forest finalized a new management plan last year, Forest Service officials said they received more than 50,000 comments, representing a nearly unprecedented level of grassroots interest and involvement.But conservationists say that, under a proposed rule change, Forest Service officials could draw up the next plan without that same level of public input. The agency recently extended the comment period on the new planning rules through April 7, and watchdog groups are urging the public to get involved and make comments on the proposed changes.The idea is to cut the cost and the length of the planning process in half, said White River National Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle. By some estimates, the White River Forest spent more than $5 million on plan revision, and numerous projects, including ski area expansions, were delayed as the plan went through various levels of review that lasted several years.&quotThe management of forests is getting more complex,&quot Ketelle said. &quotAll the time and money we put into the process has to be analyzed against the benefit of spending the money for on-the-ground management,&quot she said. The Forest Service budget isn’t expected to grow more generous anytime soon, a fact that reinforces the need to carefully husband resources, she explained.&quotIt’s hard for me to see how it (the new planning rule) would cut public involvement,&quot Ketelle said, at the same time acknowledging that the manager of the national forest unit in question would have more discretion with regard to public involvement.The agency’s regional office recently circulated an internal document that compares the existing rule (dating back to 1982) with the proposed changes. In that memo, agency officials claimed the new rule actually includes stronger language with regard to public involvement, actually requiring the responsible official (forest supervisor) &quotto engage the public in collaborative planning.&quot Of course, the existing rules also calls for formal NEPA evaluation, which spells out the process of public involvement.Under the new rule, the agency would not be required to use formal NEPA evaluation at the same points in the process, Ketelle explained. Essentially, the agency could revise a plan under a so-called &quotCategorical Exclusion&quot if there are no significant effects to the human environment.For the White River plan revision, the agency used a lengthy and exhaustive Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate and disclose the potential cumulative impacts of the new plan. Working in the NEPA framework spells out the level of public involvement and also requires the agency to developed a set of alternatives. That gives the public a chance to contrast and compare various options, some designed by conservation groups, others drawn up by the ski or timber industry, or by advocates of motorized recreation, for example.Remember Alternative &quotD,&quot anyone?Referring to the massive quantity of documentation produced for the White River plan revision, Ketelle asked whether reducing the quantity of analysis would affect the quality of the result.All in all, the new rules appear to be aimed at giving the agency more discretion, said Rocky Smith, a veteran conservation advocate who has scrutinized thousands of planning documents. For example, instead of presenting a range of alternatives, aforest supervisor could present a single plan, developed solely by the agency, Smith said.Agency officials say that, even with the proposed changes, forest projects will still be scrutinized on a site-specific basis. But Smith said drawing up a new forest plan without extensive analysis means the agency won’t have to consider cumulative, landscape-level impacts. And, Smith added, changes to the planning rules must be viewed in the context of other rule changes. For example, the Forest Service has proposed allowing various forest thinning projects to proceed without much formal evaluation.Forest supervisors could also implement certain plan amendments without formal analysis and would not be held as closely to strict standards that ensure species viability. Altogether, the changes would weaken forest plans and result in less public oversight, Smith said.In any case, Smith said he thinks the proposed changes are illegal under NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. If they are adopted, they will be challenged in court, and Smith predicted that the agency will find itself tangled in more lawsuits than ever before.Conservation community up in arms over rule changesNational, regional and local conservation groups all claim that a series of proposed regulatory changes for federal lands spells nothing but bad news for the environment. In a nutshell, environmental groups claim the new forest planning regs will1. Make it difficult to hold site-specific projects to landscape level standards.2. Reduce public involvement and citizen oversight in developing forest plans.3. Remove the safety net requiring the Forest Service to maintain viable population of species and biological diversity.4. Remove the requirement to compare the environmental effects of management alternatives when revising or amending forest plans.5. Create a presumption in favor of the status quo management, i.e., commercial logging, mining, and grazing.6. Declares lands &quotgenerally available&quot for exploitation and assumes all lands are suitable for all purposes: off road vehicles, grazing, mining, logging, etc.7. Decreases consideration and protection of roadless and wilderness areas.Find and comment on proposed federal rule changes at: http://www.regulations.govFor the environmental perspective, point your browser to: http://www.americanlands.org/bush_regulations.htmOr, comments on the forest planning rule change can be sent directly to:USDA FS Planning RuleContent Analysis TeamPO Box 8359Missoula, MT 59807Email: planning_rule@fs.fed.usFax: (406) 329-3556


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