So, What's New?
Certainly not the long debated ROAD-LESS RULE!
A few weeks back the Forest Service finally released its final rule (see HUPC LYNX 8/04 for background; for deeper background, see HUPC LYNX 12/99, 4/00, 12/00, 2/01.) The new roadless rule was expected. The 2001 rule advanced by the Clinton administration and a Forest Service that could see the future (how fast and backward things can change) proposed that some 58 million acres of Forest Service roadless lands nationwide would receive some distinct protection. It was far from perfect, even a bit schizophrenic (any national policy at this level in this day will be— many of us doubted it would survive for this reason alone—but at least the direction was clear: roadless areas were important and deserved protection). A massive two year effort at preparing an Environmental Impact Statement with hundreds of hearings/meetings and receiving over a million comments was completed just as GWB won his first election with a 5-4 victory.
The roadless rule then started a long, steep and sure spiral downhill. The old, forward-viewing Forest Service was allowed to turn back where it seemed more comfortable. (The agency itself reveals a deep historical division/tension on this issue. Many remarkable people in an “old” and “new” Forest Service find protection of roadless areas to be a crucial mission of the agency, but the agency’s fear of wilderness/ wildness is a deep institutional lump and the agency always seems most content to fall back where it is now, to the utter dismay and consternation of many forward-looking folks in the Forest Service.) So the agency and its boss, the President, have proposed a new roadless rule (the President can always say it came from the land management professionals and land management professionals can say it came from “higher-ups.”)
The new rule, predictably far less visible in its preparation, ends the 2001 rule/direction. Roadless areas will now be protected by reverting back to the forest planning process, itself undergoing a massive backward alteration. We have reviewed numerous times how the Wasatch-Cache National Forest Plan utterly failed to protect roadless areas (see, again, HUPC LYNX 8/04 for a summary). The Ashley National Forest plan will be revised under the new and clearly unfriendly regs (see below). It is already estimated that nationally, under forest plans, about 58% of the inventoried roadless acreage is subject to some sort of road building.
The rule takes one step further backward by establishing a State petition process for roadless area management (an 18 month time fame is required for a petition to be filed—November 2006). The governor of any state with Forest Service roadless acreage can petition the Secretary of Agriculture to adopt management regulations for any roadless area. If the Secretary of Agriculture accepts the Governor’s petition, the state must initiate a State-specific rulemaking process!
It is obvious the proverbial dice are loaded. The rule plainly states a petition to protect a roadless area, for example, will not automatically be granted. With a Cheshire grin, the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture responsible for the Forest Service noted that if a petition were guaranteed then it would be unconstitutional, since federal lands would be managed by a state.
Furthermore, if a petition is granted, the State will have to initiate specific rule-making to declare how the area will be managed. In essence, the state will have to commit personnel and financial resources to assist the Forest Service in preparing the appropriate environmental analysis, but the Forest Service will retain final decision-making authority. If, and this is likely fantasy, the state of Utah were to petition the Forest Service to protect the eastern end of the North Slope of the Uintas where the Evanston/Mt. View Ranger District has long coveted the timber resource, it could still be rejected by the agency, saying we want to cut the trees anyway!
More likely, of course, is that a state may petition the Forest Service to remove the roadless protections and call for development. In a meeting with Wasatch-Cache National Forest Supervisor Tom Tidwell, we asked whether the state could petition the Forest Service to remove the protections for the portion of the Lakes Roadless area that was recommended as wilderness. His answer was ‘yes.’ If such a petition were to be accepted, the area would no longer be recommended as wilderness by the Forest Service! So much for the forest planning process that was billed to all of us as the decision-making document for roadless, wilderness, etc. The dishonesty and disingenuousness of the Forest Service is simply appalling.
These state petitions and rulemaking, if accepted, are no longer forest plan allocations/decisions subject to revision and amendment in the planning process. They become, in essence, a permanent federal rule independent of forest planning. Governor Huntsman has indicated his support.
A hopelessly complex process has been set up to fail. An intentional mockery of the very context of roadless area preservation has been set in motion. But that is government of this day.
Of course, it doesn’t stop here. The Forest Service has finalized its new FOREST PLANNING process. Again, we have discussed this at length (HUPC LYNX 2/05) as also a process looking backward—the theme of today’s Forest Service. The rule implements a planning process so complex that most planners have yet to explain, let alone understand it.
The essence is this: the requirement of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement with each forest plan no longer exists. Plans will be categorically excluded from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Public comment on the forest plan is amorphous— it is largely up to each forest as to how to implement the collaborative public comment process. Wildlife viability has been dropped and, while roadless areas must be inventoried, the primary purpose will be to make wilderness recommendations and not protect roadless areas as a management context. It is as far from a forest planning process as one can imagine!
An interesting example is the Ashley National Forest plan will be revised under this planning scenario, but will not likely be finished before the 18 month roadless area petition process. Thus the state of Utah may petition the Forest Service to make roadless area allocations without any meaningful public review or input until the rulemaking process! This could mean an end to wilderness recommendations coming out of the planning process.
Speaking of NEPA, hearings are underway nationally to dismiss and amend a truly unique and venerable statue. While NEPA’s teeth have always been dull (the law does not require an agency to automatically choose the least impacting alternative to a proposed action, although it did assume the proverbial learning curve would be used by agencies to select the least impacting actions), it does require full review not only of a proposed action but meaningful and broad alternatives. It requires full disclosure and utilization of the best information available, and lives by its open, direct public involvement in decisionmaking. Those politicos who live by whining are claiming the involvement and disclosure processes take too much time and the alternatives are too broad and unnecessary— the direction of change!
Already the Forest Service has restricted the implementation of NEPA through a series of administrative regulations by limiting alternatives, curbing appeals, minimizing public comment time frames, allowing scoping and the publication of the proposed action to occur simultaneously, and excluding numerous actions from full NEPA review. For example, the ROOSEVELT RANGER DISTRICT of the Ashley National Forest is proposing to categorically exclude an analysis of 22 GRAZING ALLOTMENTS, NEARLY 220,000 ACRES. The proposal and scoping, simultaneously, were to apply the same standards to each allotment.
We were dumbfounded by this proposal. Since 1995 the Ashley has had an opportunity to initiate the necessary environmental analyses, properly group the allotments, and provide full public comment and review. In fact, an environmental review/analysis has been started for many of these allotments in the last few years, only NOW to be terminated/cancelled. It seems as though the forest has decided to drop the process which would have geographically grouped allotments and then proceed with preparation of an EA or EIS and full public review in favor of simply amassing all of the allotments, many of them wildly different in nature and place, incorporate broad stroke guidelines/standards on them, then categorically exclude them from a full NEPA review and public input!
This proposal shoves aside alternatives and analysis of issues. It sends an undeniable statement that public concerns over grazing issues on the forest are minimized while grazing interests are simultaneously maximized. Clearly the intent here is to restrict public involvement and benefit private grazing interests.
Speaking of public input: the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) just finished the Regional (Wildlife) Advisory Council (RAC) meetings on the State Wolf Plan. As our May email alert noted, they are tough hearings, but important to at least bear witness and show wolves/wildness have some degree of support here in Utah. In a recent scathing letter to the editor in the Salt Lake Tribune, a wolf supporter at the Springville RAC meeting asked, “Is the environmental movement dead?” The writer’s concern was the terribly disappointing showing from the environmental community at that hearing—half a dozen or so wolf supporters out of many hundreds in attendance. It was worse in the southern Utah RAC meeting and about the same at the meeting in Brigham City, where HUPC concentrated its efforts.
While it is easy to heap it upon agencies that don’t listen, politicos that don’t want to listen, people who have carved out their wildness and can’t see or feel a connection with a wild world, to see that our voice is dwindling, our howl and song not so vigorous, is disheartening. Our voice and song carry wildness. If it fades, wildness disappears.
On the brighter side, the Ashley National Forest has produced its nearly-final WILD AND SCENIC RIVER ELIGIBILITY REPORT proposing some 24 stream segments (320+ miles) on the forest as eligible to be studied in the forest planning process for suitability to add to the National Wild and Scenic River System. However, local county officials are upset and demanding the inventory be reduced.
The forest has also completed its ROADLESS INVENTORY (678,000 acres), which is now, of course, tied closely to the state’s wishes. The inventory, for whatever it may be worth, is good, identifies some 38 roadless units, five of them (313,000 acres) contiguous to the High Uintas Wilderness.