Forest Service proposes expanded use of streamlined reviews
Written byPHIL TAYLOR, Greenwire
The Forest Service today published a draft proposal to significantly expand an environmental review procedure designed to enhance and accelerate decisionmaking on the agency's 193 million acres of forests and grasslands.
The proposed regulation published in this morning's Federal Register would apply a "pre-decisional objections" process to all activities implementing land management plans that require an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
If finalized, the proposal could mean swifter decisions on timber sales, restoration projects and special use permits, among others.
The new regulation -- developed in response to a legislative rider Congress passed in its fiscal 2012 omnibus appropriations bill -- would implement an objections process the agency has used since 2004 to expedite thinning projects that reduce wildfire risk.
That procedure was developed under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 to allow people to object to projects before a final decision is made. But it also limits who can file such objections and when.
In general, objections must be filed within 30 days of the agency's draft decision, as opposed to appeals' being filed after a final decision is made. In addition, only those who provided National Environmental Policy Act comments on a project are allowed to file objections.
"This proposal will result in better, more informed project decisions, better documentation of environmental effects of agency proposals, and reduced regulation for administrative reviews," said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in a statement.
Many stakeholders support the objections procedure as a way to encourage groups and individuals to participate earlier in agency decisionmaking, though others say it limits the public's oversight of federal lands.
Scott Miller, a former aide to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) who now teaches at the University of Colorado Law School, said the pre-decisional objections process has worked well by encouraging earlier participation from stakeholders.
"The old way would allow me to sit in my office and never talk to the Forest Service, and once they make a decision I can appeal," he said in an interview last month. "It drove the Forest Service crazy."
Many stakeholders have found the pre-decisional objections process better because it allows them to sit down with agency officials to collaboratively resolve their concerns, Miller said.
But the Center for Biological Diversity in December blasted Congress for ordering the Forest Service to expand the procedure, calling it a "major blow" to the public's oversight of national forests. The Tucson, Ariz.-based group warned that the change will limit opportunities to weigh in on timber sales and oil and gas leasing, leaving litigation as the public's only recourse.
"This year's appropriations bill is a bad deal for the American public and our national forests," Taylor McKinnon, the group's public lands campaigns director, said at the time. "National forests are publicly owned lands that deserve public oversight. Curtailing the public's participation will mean more bad timber sales, drilling and other development proposals."
The spending bill reduced from 45 days to 30 days the amount of time during which members of the public may respond to specific proposals, the group said. McKinnon also criticized language that allows the Forest Service to forego the pre-decisional objection processes if emergency circumstances exist.
The proposed rule does not apply to projects that are categorically excluded from full NEPA reviews. The agency said it is waiting for a federal appeals court to resolve a claim by environmental groups challenging a George W. Bush administration rule that limited notices, comments and appeals on such projects (E&ENews PM, March 21).
Today's proposed rule will be subject to 30 days of public comments.