Feds revisit forest planning regs | AspenTimes.com

Feds revisit forest planning regs

Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

A 2005 proposal to drastically streamline national forest planning rules is back on the table and still drawing fire from conservation groups.

The Forest Service developed the new planning regulations as a way to make forest planning more cost-effective and efficient, according to Kevin Lawrence, who worked on the proposal in the agency’s national headquarters.

Instead of spending millions of dollars on paperwork and administrative procedures, the new rules would help get money applied on the ground, where it’s needed most, Lawrence said.

Lawrence also said the new rules would boost public involvement.

“There’s a lot more emphasis in the rule, not just on public comment, but on a collaborative approach with stakeholders and looking toward a final desired outcome,” Lawrence said.

But various conservation and watchdog groups have panned the rule for gutting crucial environmental protections, for example by removing requirements for enforceable standards with “must-do” language, according to Rocky Smith, of Colorado Wild.

The old rules also required forest plans to ensure species viability. They also required monitoring of some key species as a way of measuring compliance with the plan.

In drafting the new rule, the Forest Service said it can’t ensure species viability because of factors outside the agency’s control, and that a focus on species viability diverts attention from an ecosystem approach to land management.

Commenting on the proposed regulations, conservation groups said the agency should be accountable for maintaining the viability of species on its own lands. The comments explained that, for some species, national forests are the main habitat areas.

Most importantly, the new rule enables the agency to write individual new forest plans outside the framework of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). That requires federal agencies to take a thoughtful, hard look at several different alternatives of any proposed action, including a discussion of potential impacts.

The 2005 rules were put on hold last year by a federal court, which ruled that the new framework didn’t comply with NEPA requirements. The Forest Service subsequently went back to the drawing board and prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the new rules, including a set of alternatives and disclosure of potential effects.

But that detailed scrutiny would still not be required for individual forest plans.

“They put out the exact same set of planning regs that were invalidated by the court,” Smith said. “We’re just going around in circles,” he added, predicting that the latest Forest Service plan would again be challenged in court.

According to Smith, who filed formal comments on behalf of Colorado Wild, the new rules could allow for much more widespread logging without ensuring that timber harvests won’t irreversibly harm soil, slope and watershed conditions.

The new regs would also eliminate public appeals of forest plans, replacing that avenue with a “pre-decisional” objection process.

The appeals process has long been viewed by the Forest Service as a costly and time-consuming delay mechanism used by environmental special interest groups to delay implementation of projects. Environmental groups have said that appeals are used to single out actions that are not in the public interest or don’t comply with other applicable environmental laws.

Smith said new plans drafted under the 2005 rules for two national forests in Colorado (the Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands and the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest) show that the new regs fail to provide adequate protection for important resources.

The most pointed criticism came from Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), a watchdog and whistleblower protection group made up of former and current agency employees.

“They’re trying to do the impossible,” said FSEEE director Andy Stahl. “They’re trying to write regulations that eliminate environmental protections while still saying that they’ve complied with the National Forest Management ACT and NEPA. They’re trying to turn the clock back to the days before the National Forest Management Act, when they had unbridled authority to do whatever they want,” Stahl said.

“They can’t get Congress to change the rules, so they’re trying to do it administratively. A lot of this is the death throes of a dying administration,” he said, adding a political context to the debate over the forest planning rules.

The Bush administration has been accused of undermining environmental protections on a wide variety of fronts, from global warming to endangered species.

“At the same time, it’s sort of a goal-line defense for environmental groups. They’re trying to prevent permanent long-term damage,” Stahl concluded.

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