ROADLESS ROLLER COASTER
As we noted in the August 2003 Lynx the roadless rule sits astride a steep and twisting roller coaster. Appeals filed and won, courts case filed and won and lost. And it only gets more confusing. While the 9th Circuit Court earlier this year validated the roadless rule proffered during the Clinton Administration, a Wyoming federal judge, struck the rule down declining to follow the 9th Circuits ruling. The Bush Administration has decided not to appeal this decision and the rule for now has hit a dead end with a promise by the Forest Service and the Bush administration to develop a new set of rules to manage Forest Service roadless areas. Dont hold your breath! So far every alteration of environmental rules initiated by the Forest Service has openly and clearly been initiated to dampen environmental protection and public participation.
So, in essence, roadless areas, on forests where revised forest plans are completed will be protected or developed based on the forest plan allocations (less than 1/2 of the high Uintas roadless areas and acreage on the WCNF received roadless protection and much of that is less than clear). Where forest plans are not in place it is expected the Chief of the Forest Service will require forest managers to obtain the Chief's approval before developing roadless areas until the new rule is completed. No firm timeline has been offered for this new rule. The Chief has been quoted in numerous newspapers as suggesting roadlessness is not much of an issue because the Forest Service has no intention of building roads in roadless areas. The obvious question then remains as to why the Forest Service and this administration have been so openly hostile to a roadless rule that was in many ways benign, subject to incredible public review and a detailed Environmental Impact Statement.
And to add to the mischief, new forest planning rules are waiting for final approval. One of the significant changes to the planning rule, which will guide the preparation of new forest plans, was direction that forest plans need not be subject to formal Environmental Impact Statements! As reported in the October 2, 2003 Land Letter, it appears this will be the formal recommendation when the regulations are finally released later this year. This will have no affect on the ongoing forest plan revision on the Wasatch-Cache National Forest (that plan is still under appeal by HUPC and a host and cast of nearly a dozen conservation groups and off-roaders). However, the Ashley National Forest plan will be subject to this new rule. Simply put, the Forest Service will not be bound by formal Environmental Impact Statement rules of analysis, disclosure, review, public participation and accountability (administrative appeals). The agency has promised adequate public review, but the history of the past two years has been anything but hopeful as time frames for commenting on agency decision have been shortened and often subject to decision maker whim with some comments being requested only days before decision are actually made! The Forest Service argues forest plans are not decision documents, only guides, and decisions must be analyzed under separate environmental assessments or impact statements.
More mischief! Under a series of new NEPA rules, more and more decisions have been ìcategorically excludedî from formal NEPA documentation including numerous kinds of timber sales/vegetation treatments/road building. These decisions are generally exempt from citizen based administrative appeals, meaning that public comments have been shortened at the front end, scoping, and terminated at the rear end, decisions.
Furthermore, the Forest Service suggests forest plans dont make decision, only offer direction. Mere semantics. The direction almost always harbors the decision, the intent.
Unfortunately, intent of this whole process is to squeeze conservation out of the planning process!
This is not to say that numerous forest planners and managers on both the Wasatch-Cache and Ashley National Forests have the same goal. They don't and many on both forests have made it clear and continue to make it clear they believe conservation/preservation and open public review is crucially important. But unraveling this knot is no easy task!