Public cut from forest planning
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY – When the 2.3 million acre White River National Forest updated its management plan in 2002, then-forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle touted the high level of public involvement as a highlight of the process.
The agency held scores of public meetings and even included a citizens’ version (Alternative I) as one of the options in the draft plan. Input from grassroots organizations, including Summit County groups like Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness and the Summit Fat Tire Society, played a key role in shaping the final document, characterized by many stakeholders as a successful compromise between competing interests, a balance between recreation and natural resource conservation.
But next time around, the process could look quite different. Last month, the Forest Service decided that, from now on, the White River forest could revise its plan with no formal public involvement, and without studying a range of alternatives as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
To justify the sweeping change, the agency is hanging its hat on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that suggests no formal National Environmental Policy Act scrutiny is needed for forest plans, since they don’t result in any direct impacts to resources.
Whether the new streamlined forest planning process is good or bad depends upon whom you ask.
Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Rick Cables said he thinks the public will come to appreciate the new rule if it survives legal challenges.
“I think it’s one of the most progressive policy changes we’ve seen in a long time,” Cables said. “The public is tired of planning efforts that take 10 years and cost $10 to $15 million. The process has become onerous and expensive. The only people that are able to stick with it are the special interest groups and the people who are paid to be there.”
Cables said under the new rule, a plan could be revised in less than two years.
“You can get the real public involved,” he said. “I believe this is a dramatic enhancement of public participation. We’d sit down with different collections of people, looking at social pockets and cultural enclaves, and set desired future conditions,” Cables said.
“We would still do NEPA for on-the-ground-stuff,” said White River forest planner Wendy Haskins, likening the forest plan (under the new rule) to a county master plan, that offers guidance, but very little in the way of enforceable standards and measurable guidelines.
“I think it would go a lot quicker than when we did the plan the last time. It would be easier to update and stay current,” Haskins said. That could help the agency better deal with emerging management challenges that aren’t big on the radar screen at the start of a planning cycle, she explained.
A forest plan generally has a lifespan of about 10 to 15 years. And since the White River plan was updated, there have already been some significant changes, including a surge in natural gas drilling, as well as the forest-wide infestation of mountain pine beetles.
It’s some of those very same issues that are of concern to Claire Bastable, the Colorado Mountain Club’s acting conservation director.
“What’s particularly worrisome is, they’re saying they won’t make decisions (without public input) that affect the forest on the ground,” Bastable said. “But they are. The forest plan determines which lands are available for leasing for gas drilling,” Bastable said. “The Forest Service is saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll have public involvement at every level,’ but we’re not seeing that. And we are really concerned,” she said.
Colorado Wild’s Rocky Smith said the same concerns apply in Summit County, where the Forest Service has recently approved a variety of ski area activities and expansions (A-Basin’s Montezuma Bowl, snowcat skiing in the upper reaches of Jones Gulch at Keystone) under the premise that those areas are already zoned for resort-based skiing under the White River forest plan.
When the Forest Service did the site-specific reviews for those projects, the agency never asked the fundamental question of whether those actions meet a public need or whether they are in the public interest.
“The Forest Service no longer has to account to the public for the impacts of the management plans they approve,” Smith said, claiming that the new planning rule is blatantly illegal. “The lawyers are licking their chops over this one,” he said.
“There’s another really sinister aspect to this,” Smith said, explaining that the new rule would enable the Forest Service to proceed with implementing forest plans without ever looking at cumulative impacts. Piecemeal approval of ski resort expansions, forest health work and other projects could cause major changes on the landscape that would never get the hard look and the public disclosure required by NEPA, Smith said.
Gutting the forest planning rules is part of an ideologically driven agenda to give district- and forest-level rangers a NEPA-free decision-making environment, said Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Stahl’s group, made of current and past Forest Service employees, serves both a watchdog function and also protects agency whistle blowers.
“You would only see one vision, the Forest Service vision,” Stahl said. “You would have no idea of the environmental consequences on elk, lynx … pick any environmental issue you want. The Forest Service could take action without having any technical, quantifiable data to back up their decision,” he said.