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Bush Administration's New Forest Plan Rule Nukes National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

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Source: Truthout.

New Forest Plan Rule Nukes NEPA
By Brodie Farquhar
New West

Tuesday 12 December 2006

The U.S. Forest Service finalized rules Tuesday, that will allow forest officials to ignore the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when amending or writing new forest management plans.

Under NEPA, public involvement and environmental analyses are required whenever the Forest Service undertakes changes to forest management plans - a process that occurs for each U.S. Forest every 15 years. However, under this new rule, any update, or significant change, would not be subject to NEPA review.

The Forest Service press release announced that "the environmental review has documented that writing management plans has no effect on the environment, which qualifies the individual plans of each National Forest for categorical exclusion from individual study under the National Environmental Policy Act."

"This is what lame-duck administrations do when they get the tar beaten out of them," said Andy Stahl, executive director for Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, based in Oregon. "They (the Bush administration) won't be able to get anything through Congress, so all that's left is administrative rulings," said Stahl - much as President Clinton did when faced with a Congress controlled by the opposing party.

During the public comment period for the new rule, Stahl testified that the proposed action was illegal. "Now we'll go tell a judge the same thing," he said.

Stahl will have company.

"In recent years, the Forest Service has created and widely used a number of categorical exclusions that prevent NEPA review for individual timber sales," said Tim Preso, an EarthJustice attorney based in Bozeman, Montana. "Excluding the forest plans themselves from NEPA review means that a great many of the agency's actions will never receive a hard look at all, at any level of forest management, much less involve the public in a meaningful way."

Preso said the finalized USFS rule has been in the works since 2005.

"I'm confident this will be challenged," he said dryly.

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NEPA Critics

U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey have long complained that NEPA causes lengthy delays in forest planning, timber sales and forest thinning to prevent forest fires - something they've tagged as "analysis paralysis." The USFS leaders also complain that they're always getting sued by environmental groups using NEPA, causing expensive delays.

"Too frequently, these processes combine to keep on-the-ground work from ever actually being accomplished, even very small projects or projects of great environmental merit," Bosworth says. "The inability to complete projects can have a detrimental effect on the land."

Aaron Everett, a spokesman for the Black Hills Forest Resource Association, called the current NEPA process a disservice to the public. He said the Forest Service tends to adopt a "siege mentality" when conservationists or logging communities start seeking changes in timber sales or forest plans.

"It doesn't lend itself to a very fluid planning process," said Everett, who witnessed the Black Hills National Forest take 16 years to work through a new forest plan.

DC Response

"Changes in fundamental forest policy should be made with the cautious precision of a whittling knife. Instead, the Forest Service is slashing forest laws with a high-powered chain saw," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), Chairman-elect of the House Committee on Resources. "This new regulation is just the latest action. The result of this new regulation is that the people will have even less ability to know about, let alone weigh in on, management of their U.S. Forest lands," explained Rahall.

His predecessor, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) was a harsh critic of NEPA, convening public hearings around the country this past year, where the vast majority of speakers were critical of NEPA. Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-WY), a member of the above committee, is a long-term critic of NEPA, saying a few years ago that "While this law was enacted in l973 with the best of intentions, namely to require environmental review of major federal actions, it has been used since that time by opponents of multiple use and development to block and delay grazing, timbering, oil and gas activity, water projects, and private property development. NEPA has cost the government, private industry, and individuals literally billions of dollars for massive, endless Environmental Impact Statements, assessments, and countless other studies, and it is a law in dire need of reform."

Big Picture?

Proponents of the new rule argue that development of management plans must be streamlined and that NEPA reviews would be better conducted on individual projects. But Rahall noted that excluding forest management plans from NEPA would result in an inability to evaluate cumulative effects on evolving land management decisions.

"These long-term forest plans - not site-specific project decisions - decide which areas will be open to logging, off-road vehicle use, back-country recreation, and other uses," said EarthJustice's Preso. "Also, these plans offer the only opportunity to take a 'big picture' look at how the entire forest is being managed, instead of the localized look that focuses on a project area alone. That 'big picture' look is critical for a number of wide-ranging wildlife species that depend on the national forests for their survival, including grizzly bears, lynx and elk."

Dick Dolan, conservation director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said the concept that writing a plan has no environmental impact "is just not true and Pollyannish at best." He too is concerned that there will be no "big picture" examinations of what is happening at the landscape, ecology scale.

"I know that people can feel there is analysis paralysis, but there's an ever growing effort by conservation groups to be more collaborative up front, rather than run off to court at the drop of a hat," said Dolan.

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