FOREST SERVICE RELEASES NEW PLANNING REGS
After half a decade of starts, fits, and chaos Forest Service released in April its new forest planning regulations (HUPC LYNX 2/07, 6/05, 2/05, 8/04). Well, not so new. When originally released in 2005, they were promptly litigated by conservationists. The court sent them back to the Forest Service. The agency re-issued them in a form almost identical to the original regs that were successfully litigated!
And guess what? The cyber-ink was barely dry on the Forest Service web site when conservationists sued again. It hard to say whether this is a new chapter or a paste up paragraph in the old chapter. While the problems with the new/old forest planning regulations are many, concerns are primarily focused on: 1- the elimination of requiring the Forest Service to assure viable populations of native fish and wildlife on national forests; 2- the unlimited discretion in forest planning by limiting the use of enforceable standards with unenforceable guidelines; 3- the decision to not require the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for each forest, allowing even the minimal categorical exclusion (CE), and; 4- the concomitant reduction in analysis, preparation of alternatives and information provided to the public. The list goes on.
The Forest Service continues to insist forest plans are, at best, strategic documents, thus not actually impacting the ground and requiring no formal environmental analysis and public review. Yet, forest plans obviously make decisions as to where timber harvesting will be allowed, where grazing will occur, where wilderness will or will not be recommended. Impacts are obvious, and accountability is necessary--both deeply ignored and restricted by these new regulations! The Forest Service essentially argues that environmental issues will eventually be fully considered in post-forest plan National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documents such as EISs or Environmental Analyses (EAs), thus no meaningful NEPA analysis is needed in forest plans. The disingenuousness in that argument actually smells, as under present Forest Service direction many management actions, as we’ve noted in this newsletter and in dozens of instances in past newsletters, now fall under some categorical exclusion where NEPA analysis is severely limited!
The intent is not to make forest planning smoother or less timely--the latter seems particularly obvious--nor to shift the burden of analysis to another level of planning (site specific projects), but to devalue planning, analysis and public involvement making it easier to slide back to a style of forest management where true public concerns, wildness and ecological values are easily dismissed.
Of course, the Ashley’s revised forest plan falls squarely under these regulations, but to the credit of the Ashley and the Intermountain Region, so far, the forest is not immediately gearing up under these regulations, recognizing the surrounding and intense controversy. They continue to work on data gathering and planning neutral analyses until July when they say they will have a full strategy of implementation. Let us hope they brighten the light, prepare an EIS, formalize public involvement, and finally move forward with a sensitive, wild, revised forest plan, now already more than a decade behind in revision!