New For­est Ser­vice rules will ex­clude en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies from plans

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Au­drey Hud­son

The For­est Ser­vice is push­ing ahead with new rules that will ex­clude en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies from for­est man­age­ment plans and di­min­ish pub­lic com­ment, de­spite an ac­tive law­suit and op­po­si­tion from key Democrats who will con­trol the next Congress.

The reg­u­la­tion re­vises how the Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal Pol­icy Act (NEPA) — passed by Congress 30 years ago dur­ing the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion — is en­forced.

List­ing 15-year for­est plan­ning projects as a “cat­e­gor­i­cal ex­clu­sion” al­lows plan­ners to skip the costly and timely tasks of con­duct­ing “en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ments” or “en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact state­ments” to de­ter­mine how log­ging or re­cre­ation af­fects the land, wa­ter or an­i­mals not al­ready pro­tected by the En­dan­gered Species Act.

Pub­lic com­ment is also re­quired un­der NEPA but has been re­vamped to wa­ter down the ef­fec­tive­ness of the pub­lic’s wants when plan­ning projects in the na­tion’s 155 forests, says Marty Hay­den, leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor of the en­vi­ron­men­tal group Earthjus­tice.

The group has filed a law­suit against the For­est Ser­vice.

“The for­est plan is forestry zon­ing that says where parts can be open to log­ging, off-road ve­hi­cles and back-coun­try re­cre­ation; it’s the over­all zon­ing plan,” Mr. Hay­den said.

Rep. Nick J. Ra­hall II, West Vir­ginia Demo­crat and in­com­ing chair­man of the House Re­sources Com­mit­tee, said the For­est Ser­vice should be “taken to the wood­shed” for the reg­u­la­tion.

“Changes in fun­da­men­tal for­est pol­icy should be made with the cau­tious pre­ci­sion of a whit­tling knife,” Mr. Ra­hall said. “In­stead, the For­est Ser­vice is slash­ing for­est laws with a high-pow­ered chain saw.”

A spokes­woman said the is­sue is at the top of Mr. Ra­hall’s list for re­view next year and that the rep- re­sen­ta­tive is “con­sid­er­ing some re­me­dial leg­is­la­tion.”

Fred Nor­bury, as­so­ci­ate deputy chief of the For­est Ser­vice, said 30 years of stud­ies has shown the in­for­ma­tion “just was not use­ful.”

“It ran into trou­ble,” Mr. Nor­bury said, be­cause of “new in­for­ma­tion, new court rul­ings, dif­fer­ent bud­gets from Congress, fires, wind­storms and new en­dan­gered species list­ings.”

More op­por­tu­ni­ties for pub­lic com­ment ex­ist un­der the new reg­u­la­tion, said Mr. Nor­bury, who called op­po­si­tion “com­pletely wrong and at odds with For­est Ser­vice phi­los­o­phy.”

“There is a mas­sive mis­un­der­stand­ing; all that NEPA re­quired is a 45-day pub­lic com­ment. We’re try­ing to cre­ate a process that is open all the way through,” said Mr. Nor­bury, who added that pub­lic com­ment would ex­tend to 90 days.

How­ever, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists said the old sys­tem pre­sented more than one op­tion at the be­gin­ning of the process to re­solve a prob­lem, which is be­ing re­placed with only one so­lu­tion on which to com­ment at the end of the process.

‘It is un­prece­dented,” Mr. Hay­den said. “Congress passed a na­tional pol­icy act to make sure there was mean­ing­ful pub­lic in­volve­ment in the process. [. . . ] Ba­si­cally, they are telling the pub­lic ‘it’s our way or the high­way.’ ”

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