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New policy limits environmental scrutiny, public appeals

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Forest Service no longer will give close environmental scrutiny to its long-term plans for America's national forests and grasslands.

It also no longer will allow the public to appeal on long-term plans for those forests, but instead will invite participation in planning from the outset.

"There is no appeal process, but there is an objection process before a decision is made," said Laura Watts, the forest planner for the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. "There is still a lot of public involvement."

Projects that result from long-term planning still would be subject to environmental analysis and public appeal, according to the Forest Service.

Forest Service officials said that eliminating the need for environmental-impact statements on its long-term plans and changing the way the public gets involved would streamline planning and improve public understanding.

But environmental groups and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who've been battling the Bush administration on a variety of ecological fronts, fear that it will squelch the public's voice and limit scientific oversight.

They charged that this wasn't the first time the Forest Service had attempted to "bury bad news" near the end of the year, when Congress had left town for the holidays.

"This is a master plan for the national forests," said Michael Francis, the director of the Wilderness Society's national forest program. "You ought to have some rigorous scientific and environmental review to look at what you want to do—as they have done since 1982."

That's when the current regulations under the National Forest Management Act of 1976 went into effect, governing 192 million acres of nationally designated forests and grasslands. The law requires that each forest have a comprehensive plan to manage its land, plants, wildlife and other resources, and it must be updated every 10 to 15 years.

Federal environmental laws require that if changes are in the works, the Forest Service must explain them and their environmental impact publicly, offer alternatives and provide a 45-day window for public comment.

"A lot of people get panicked when they hear we're not going to do environmental-impact statements," said Fred Norbury, the associate deputy chief for the national forest system. "They're afraid the public won't be able to participate in the planning process anymore."

Norbury said that was false, and that the agency had decided on a new approach because so much could change environmentally over a decade. Plans subjected to lengthy environment reviews often never got further than blueprints, he said.

The new policy uses what's known in environmental law as a categorical exclusion. This allows the Forest Service to exclude certain actions from an environmental review if it determines that they won't cause significant harm.

These are supposed to be low-impact actions, such as removing dead trees or controlling the spread of disease. Norbury said that long-term planning qualified because the Supreme Court had ruled that planning alone didn't cause environmental harm.

"A plan doesn't cause any change in the environment," he said. "Plans are intended to focus on what your goals and objectives for the land are and to provide some guidance."

Projects that emerge from long-term management plans still would be subject to environmental analysis and public appeal, Norbury said.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, who's expected to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year, said the Forest Service's suggestion that planning had no environmental impact was a "sad but revealing admission."

"The Forest Service has largely rendered meaningless what once was a robust planning process," he said in a statement. "The public, including local communities, deserves a say in how their forest lands are managed. They're not getting that say under this administration."

Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, who will chair the House Resources Committee, was more succinct. "The Forest Service should be taken to the woodshed," he said in a statement.

Critics charged that the Forest Service had been using categorical exclusions to circumvent rules and avoid public scrutiny of its decisions. The Government Accountability Office reported in October that of the more than 3,000 plant management projects the Forest Service approved from 2003 to 2005, it used exclusions on 72 percent.

The Forest Service proposed the new policy last January and made it official last week after approval by the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. Several environmental groups have challenged the policy in court. A decision is likely next year.

The timber industry supports the new policy. Chris West, the vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a trade group in 12 Western states, called it overdue.

Tom Kovalicky, who was a supervisor for the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho for 10 years, said that although the system sometimes could be frustrating for the Forest Service, the new policy sent the wrong signal.

"If you were looking for a way to push the public out of the comment process," he said, "this is it."

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The U.S. Forest Service Web site is at http://www.fs.fed.us

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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