Conservation group says rider could limit public involvement in national forest management
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY— An environmental group says the budget bill that’s awaiting President Obama’s signature includes a rider that eliminates the public’s ability to administratively appeal Forest Service management decisions.
“This year’s appropriations bill is a bad deal for the American public and our national forests,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “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.”
According to McKinnon, the change applies to all management actions across the 193-million-acre national forest system. It could cut public input on timber sales, oil and gas leasing and other activities affecting forests, recreation, wildlife and pristine landscapes. Instead, it leaves litigation as the public’s only recourse to challenge Forest Service decisions.
The bill replaces the administrative appeals process with a Bush-era “pre-decisional” objection process that only allows the public to “object” to management proposals before they’ve been finalized. The bill also reduces the amount of time that the public has to respond to specific proposals — from 45 to 30 days. In addition, it includes a sweeping, vague clause allowing the Forest Service to bypass even the pre-decisional objection processes whenever it determines that emergency circumstances exist.
The rollbacks in public participation come just as the Forest Service is re-writing National Forest Management Act regulations that provide the framework for national forest management nationwide. The Forest Service wants to replace some longstanding standards for wildlife and watersheds with more discretionary provisions. A final rule is expected early in the new year.
“For decades, national forest policy trended toward stronger environmental safeguards and more public involvement and oversight,” said McKinnon. “This week’s elimination of administrative appeals, along with the attempted weakening of safeguards in the planning rule, mark a drastic step backwards for our national forest system — all on the Obama administration’s watch.”