Forest Planning On The Uintas
Ashley Forest Plan
While the Ashley National Forest stumbles/struggles through its new forest plan, the process itself has been given one more shove off the edge. On 15 December the Forest Service finalized its rule making on forest plans, stating that forest plans are, at best, broadly strategic and thus not subject to meaningful environmental analysis or preparation of alternatives and therefore Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) will not be prepared. These documents will simply be replaced by Categorical Exclusions (CE.)
While public involvement will continue on, largely a function of each forest supervisor’s whims, public input will have little accountability because it is the formal process of preparing an EIS that required public input at specified times, under specified time frames and required the agency to respond and incorporate public concerns.
The contention that a forest plan is strategic only and authorizes no action is downright disingenuous—intellectually dishonest from the outset. Forest plans will define areas open to logging, oil and gas leasing, which undeveloped areas (roadless areas) will be considered for wilderness recommendations or opened for development, wild and scenic river suitability determinations, rangeland suitability, recreation opportunities—off highway and snowmobile access—and you can bet the proverbial ranch that when development projects are “analyzed,” the forest will note the forest plan directed timber development here, off road vehicle access here and there, grazing over there and snowmobiling everywhere!
With even greater irony and deception, the Forest Service assures us that these specific projects that tier from a categorically excluded forest plan will be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (EISs and Environmental Assessments (EAs.) Almost everything a forest does now that used to be documented in an EIS or EA and fully disclosed alternatives, analysis and public involvement is now done in a CE (due to massive revamps of Forest Service regulations.) Over the last couple of years we have documented this in some detail. These site-specific project CEs at best analyze only the preferred alternative, limit public involvement and radically diminish environmental analysis, often incorporating both the initial scoping and proposed action in the same document!
The intent of all of this is simple: delimit public review and input, diminish environmental analysis and review, and make it far easier to authorize activities that notably harm forest environments at both the broadest and most site-specific levels, all the while assuring the public that your voice has not been stymied and the junk-talk of “analysis paralysis” offered as the rationale for a sea-change in policy! And lest one simply blame it on the Bush administration, it is important to note these changes came from the Forest Service with the Chief of the Forest Service, after announcing his resignation, writing the Democratic leaders in Congress to urge them to allow these policy changes to persist and pervade!
Ashley Desired Future Conditions
We are still waiting for the Ashley to finalize its desired future conditions (see HUPC LYNX, September-December 2006), which, at last reading, allowed almost anything everywhere. Far from a desired future condition, it is a rationale to continue on the same path that allows logging to continue to fragment forests, creates dysfunctional ecosystems, allows grazing unfettered, dismisses as unmanageable off road vehicle access, and encourages oil and gas development.
Oil And Gas
On the latter, we learned at a meeting in January with Ashley Forest officials that a proposal has been submitted, still in an early stage, to allow up to 400 drilling sites, primarily for natural gas development, on the South Units (Tavaputs Plateau). Much of the area is already leased and undergoing either exploration or active drilling with this most recent proposal simply overwhelming some of the Forest Service personnel at that meeting lamented its scope. Yet it is the very same Forest Service that has allowed the area to be leased (encouraged it, in fact) and, when pressed at the meeting as to whether the new revised forest plan will reconsider oil and gas leasing on the forest, gave no for the predictable answer— again! It seems as if the Ashley speaks with a hollow voice—expressing concern over drilling and its impacts upon wildlife and sage grouse, for example, but doing nothing in the past to delimit the scope of leasing and proposing to do nothing in the future.
It is a disturbing trend!
We were told at the same meeting that there would be no more formal discussions about undeveloped (roadless) areas (see HUPC LYNX, 8/06, HUPC Special Alert, 10/06 and HUPC LYNX September – December 2006) and that when the forest plan is released the decision will be made on what areas will be recommended as wilderness. By definition, in the undeveloped area analysis, that will likely be confined to the portions of the “four” areas with a high wilderness capability rating. Remember, there were 37 undeveloped areas identified and, of the four identified, three of them are contiguous to one another and the High Uintas Wilderness, making for one area.
Hopefully, by mid-March we will have a better idea of timing and process. It is important to note conservationists are challenging the CE rule and hopefully forest planning will be put back on a transparent track!