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Myths Of Public Comment

There was in a far away place a government that legend says had a process that allowed its plebeians to participate in decision making, though, of late, this government was stuffed with an ugly hubris, gave nary a hoot about its subjects and most of its recent time was actually spent hiding decisions, finding short cuts in the public comment process, or downright ignoring the small voices trying to participate.

But way back in history--1998-- a department of this government offered a proposal and asked for public concerns. In they rolled. In a different time, yea, some of those concerns were heard and the decision was said to be refined.

And in 2002, sliding right into post-modern times, this government offered a new proposal, the same name but with a bit of refinement--‘we can only go so far, you know,’ the government seemed to be saying. Offering yet another chance to comment and finally releasing a 2004 draft decision in a kind of analytical document rarely used in these days, the government invited still another round of comments while slyly warning that no more changes are in the making--‘we have gone far enough to meet you, our plebes.’

At long last, in mid-2004, a final decision was rendered. The promise of no more changes did not ring hollow--government stood its ground against even the measured proposals from some of its citizens. ‘You shall not be heard.’ Appeals to administrative decision makers in a place called Ogden were filed and spurned late in 2004.

So the arbitration went to the independent judicial system of this country (in this case, however, judges that hear these kinds of decisions are appointed by the reigning President, and then held for life.)

By mid-2007 the courts had ruled extensively and remanded the decision back to this governmental department.
So you see,’ believers said, ‘the system worked even though the government decision making agency balked at every step.’ With a few modifications, suggested by citizen participants in the process way back in ’98, ‘02, and ’04, all of this would not have been necessary.

Verily, the government responded with authority and a Cheshire grin, in early 2008, this very year, with a new decision. Well, a new-old decision. From a place called Vernal the decision maker stuffed the very same 2004 decision the judicial system remanded a year earlier down the tiny plebeian throats. Not a draft decision document or a supplemental decision document inviting additional public comments or review, as in the days of yore, but almost word for word the same 2004 document referring only to changes in specialists’ reports not even provided in the new-old 2004. The little subjects of this government were invited to appeal the new-old decision to the same Ogden administrative decision maker only if they participated in the 2004 process. This from the Vernal voice and his minions who speak so often, but, with great irony, of the need for open, early and frequent public involvement.

Meadow by M. PettisBut why, you might ask, appeal the same new-old decision already appealed and spurned in 2004? Would not the administrative appeal be the same, since the decision did not change and the Ogden voice spoke then with rejection of the earlier appeal? This is what led to the arbitration before the judicial system and a remand back to the governmental
department to rethink the old decision, now the new-old decision.

Indeed, it is hubris and disingenuous. It is a process of wearing down the plebeians. While the early history of this decision had a bit of clarity and openness, the voice of Vernal grew weary of the very process it expounds and challenged its subjects to a game of appeal and litigate, rather than discuss and resolve. Maybe the latter was never intended.

Thus is the story of the Trout Slope West Timber Project (see HUPC LYNX, 8/98, 10/98, 8/02, 4/04, 8/04, 2/05) on the Ashley National Forest. Just another way of ignoring environmental concerns, conservationists, or seeking broad based solutions, which have been available to the Ashley, from the inception of this project! The Ashley’s goal has been to ignore all and turn this forest into cubic feet. Appeal and litigate-- that is the choice the Forest offers.


Another variation of this story, told by the Ashley’s neighbor to the north, the Uinta- Wasatch- Cache National Forest and the Evanston Ranger District, is the West Bear Vegetation Management Project (see HUPC LYNX, 4/02, 6/02, 8/05, 10/05, 6/07.) Language is everything--vegetation management project translates, in this case, to timber sale!
Here is a project near and around Whitney Reservoir that originated in 1988 with variations on the proverbial theme in 1993, 1997 and 2002! A draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was released in 2005 conceding the proposal met none of the expectations, purpose or need.

The final EIS was released in early 2007, and, like Trout Slope West, was appealed by the High Uintas Preservation Council and the Utah Environmental Center. The appeals, however, were not formally ruled upon because the Forest withdrew the decision document. One year later, the same decision was proposed again, this time buttered up by a small draft supplemental EIS (SDEIS)--literally, it was a document that cut and pasted words, sentences, paragraphs and occasionally pages to the old EIS!

Nothing was really reconsidered, just dressed up. It was a far better process than the Ashley’s shortcuts, but still fraught with neglect. The desire to proceed with constructing eight miles of roads in the highest road density portion of the district and turn hundreds of acres of forests into cubic feet appears to be the prime motive!


The more common variation of the story in these days is that a timber sale is proposed, usually wrapped in the costume of reducing forest fire threats, insect infestations or bringing a forest into its properly functioning condition (the primary rationale behind the West Bear timber sale!), and then summarily excluded from documentation in a formal environmental analysis, whether it be an Environmental Assessment (EA) or the more detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This is referred to as a categorical exclusion (CE), allowing the Forest Service to prepare a proposal, limit public input, minimize analysis, offer no alternatives, and provide minimal documentation. Historically this has always been an option and was considered an exception. Today categorical exclusions have dramatically increased and are the norm.

Just recently, for example, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest released a proposal to harvest timber in Murdock Basin/ Broadhead Meadows, just a short distance from the Mirror Lake Highway below Murdock Mt.

The last time we dealt with a Murdock Basin timber sale was in September 1993 when the Decision Notice stated, “... there is no future entry for additional harvest planned...”(emphasis added.) While that particular harvest was referred to as Murdock Mt. and was a couple of miles north of this proposed timber sale, the discussion, then, was clear that there were no future timber sales planned in the Murdock Basin area. The area had been moderately harvested in the past.

In the new forest plan, the Murdock Basin area was never considered as a timber producing area. It is not within a timber management prescription. A guideline was offered that allows timber harvesting or prescribed fire “to mimic historic conditions” and “to restore ecosystem functioning” while not detracting “from the recreational setting.” At best, timber/vegetation management was an afterthought and not, by any stretch of the imagination, a direction. The direction is plain, though, if treatments are to occur, they are to emphasize properly functioning conditions, maintain species composition and stand structure and, because of past harvesting in roaded areas, treatments are to be small with a low level of disturbance.

There is nothing to suggest these forests are outside of their historic variability or are outside of their properly functioning conditions other than the extensive road building that has occurred, grazing that is occurring, fire prevention that continues, and the extensive timber harvesting of the past, which has created an unnatural fragmentation of the region. Clearly, Forest Service management is the problem, not pine beetles or downed or old trees.

Mountains by M. PettisOne can’t pretend to “mimic historic conditions” or “emphasize properly functioning conditions” in forest ecosystems that naturally exist because of high fire severity, frequent fires, stand replacing fires and because of high levels of pine beetle infestations. In these systems, forests cycle through old age, with few stands of young trees, burn hot and erratically, and produce young forests that eventually become old forests intermixed with few stands of young trees to simply start the process over. That is properly functioning condition and historic natural variation of Murdock Basin.

But the Uinta-Wasatch is not alone.

The Ashley National Forest proposes to harvest trees to minimize fire danger to the East Park Campground with a timber sale categorical exclusion. This is a good idea and a perfect application of a categorical exclusion since the research is plainly and abundantly clear that removing highly ignitable small trees, ladder fuels (branches and the like) and dry dead debris on the ground within a couple of hundred feet of the structures to be protected is notably helpful in reducing flame length and fire intensity and protecting structures.

Part of this East Park Campground proposal is right on target. But it is profoundly suspect as much of the proposal calls for harvesting larger trees up to one half mile away! This serves no purpose in protecting the campground and its facilities or access routes. It is a timber sale hidden inside a categorical exclusion.

On and on and on it goes.

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