Forest Service facing another challenge over planning process
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY ” When Breckenridge wilderness advocate Currie Craven volunteered to help shape the White River National Forest Plan back in the 1990s, he had no idea that he was signing up for marathon duty.
The planning process dragged on for seven years and cost a few million dollars before then-Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle signed off on the dotted line in 2002, touting the plan as a successful collaborative effort.
Representing Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness and serving on a special area work group, Craven helped develop a citizen alternative for the draft plan, focused on adding more wilderness and setting aside land for non-developed and non-mechanized activities.
The new planning rules proposed by the Forest Service in 2005 and revised earlier this year year could limit formal public involvement, according to Citizen-activists like Craven. The latest regulations on forest planning have been challenged once again in federal court by a nationwide coalition of environmental groups.
Forest Service rangers said the new planning method is more flexible and will boost public involvement compared to the regulations now in effect, dating back to 1982.
The latest rules require public participation in developing and updating comprehensive evaluation reports and with for monitoring the plan.
For now, the changes are not on the radar screen for the Glenwood Springs-based White River National Forest, said acting deputy Forest Supervisor Cal Wettstein.
The White River ” the national forest surrounding Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley ” isn’t scheduled to begin another plan update for several years, but other Colorado forests in the middle of planning cycles, could be affected by the see-saw legal battle.
Lengthy forest planning efforts take away money from on-the-ground projects. Streamlining the planning rule will speed up implementation of plans, according to agency planners.
Parts of the 2005 rules were rejected by a federal court, then modified and re-issued by the Forest Service in 2007.
The latest version of the rules was challenged again in federal court again last month. In a lawsuit, a coalition of conservation groups claimed the rules violate federal law and undermine protection for forest resources.
One of the groups joining in the lawsuit is Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Since some of the group’s members work for the Forest Service, it means the agency is in the curious position of being sued by it’s own employees.
The biggest change is that the Forest Service is not required to do a comprehensive environmental study before adopting a new forest plan. The rules also eliminate forest management allocations that function like municipal zoning, making it harder for citizens to visualize planned activities.
“Having gone through the process, I’d say it’s valuable,” said Craven.
According to a Forest Service briefing paper issued through the White River National Forest, the new rules still ensure the protection of wildlife by providing a framework to fully comply with all resource protection laws including the Endangered Species Act.
The new rule also includes public involvement requirements exceeding those under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Requiring site specific reviews rather than a massive upfront environmental study also gives planner more flexibility to address changing conditions like impacts from climate change or catastrophic events such as wildfire or hurricanes.
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