Federal court ruling in California covers entire country; requires agency to allow appeals on decisions made under streamlined process
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A federal judge in California this week ruled that the U.S. Forest Service can’t simply drop a post-decision appeals process for logging, forest health and other projects approved under a categorical exclusions, which is a streamlined approval process for smaller projects. In those decisions, the appeals process is replaced with a pre-decisional objection period, which enables people to raise concerns before the final decision is made. Read the decision here (PDF on Scribd.com) or at the end of the post.
That means citizens or stakeholder groups across the country once again have the right to challenge certain Forest Service projects after the final decision has been made by a district- or forest-level official.
The agency has often used the categorical exclusion process in recent years to gain speedy approval for projects relating to the pine beetle epidemic. While many of the projects aren’t controversial, some have been.
Absent a formal administrative appeals process — which involves review by forest officials higher up the chain of command — citizens and environmental groups must go directly to court to challenge a project.
In some regions, the agency has done a good job of involving stakeholders in the process early to help shape decisions that have community support. But that’s not the case all over the country, and having the opportunity to appeal enables people to challenge bad decisions without the expense of going to court.
On the other hand, environmental groups have sometimes abused the appeals process to obstruct and delay projects. Those tactics led frustrated Forest Service officials to look for shortcuts. But fundamentally, appeals have always helped ensure that citizens have some recourse to challenge the agency when it comes to what are often irrevocable commitments of public resources.
In his decision, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence O’Neill also ruled that the agency must give adequate notice for its decisions on categorical exclusion projects, as well as provide the public with an opportunity to comment.
The ruling, issued by a U.S. District Court in California, is a skirmish in the long-running regulatory and legal battle over the Forest Service’s desire to cut red tape, sometimes at the expense of public involvement and adequate environmental review.
The Forest Service fired the first salvo when it tried to eliminate administrative appeals altogether in an attempt to speed up approvals for projects. In response, Congress in 1992 passed the Forest Service Decision-making and Appeals Reform Act.
“Congress said, we want to ensure that you’ve heard all the voices … and that you use the appeal process to repair your mistakes,” said Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics director Andy Stahl, explaining that he lobbied for the appeals reform act.
That law states very clearly that the Forest Service must include an appeals process for any decision or project that implements a forest plan.
Stahl said appeals help make the Forest Service decision-making process accessible to the general public, giving citizens a chance to influence decisions without having to hire a lawyer if they think a project has some fundamental flaws. And based on the agency’s track record of losing appeals and court cases, that happens as often as not.
In the bigger picture, Congress just recently passed a law that eliminates appeals for all decisions approved under Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements, instead replacing those appeals with pre-decisional objection periods.