The U.S. Forest Service will issue draft decisions on projects like timber sales to streamline comments and objections from the public.
Under new rule, people who have concerns with the Forest Service actions will be required to participate in the planning process and file objections before the agency makes a final decision. The idea is to make forest managers aware of potential problems while projects are still in development so they can be changed. The new system is designed to streamline the often-tedious process of planning projects and to curtail controversy and lawsuits.
When the rule was in development, some people wondered how they could be expected to intelligently comment on projects prior to the agency announcing exactly what it intends to do. Some says they would have to resort to filing pages upon pages of comments and objections based on hypothetical situations.
But the agency is now committing to issuing draft decisions on large projects requiring environmental impact statements and draft decision notices on smaller projects requiring less formal environmental analysis. The move allows people to tailor their objections.
Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League in Boise says the final rules eliminated many of his concerns.
"From my perspective, I'm just not seeing anything here that is all that Earth-shattering," he says. "It's applying a predecisional objection process which provides more avenues for the agency to avoid litigation. Whether you are on the conservation side or the industry side, I think that is a good thing. Litigation doesn't really work in anybody's favor."
HOW THE RULE WORKS
Under the rule, when an agency issues a draft environmental impact statement, people interested must comment if they have concerns or if they want to be eligible to object if the agency ultimately takes a direction they don't like. Those objections must be based on something they raise in their comments.
When objections are made, the Forest Service must notify the public and invite people to join a 45-day resolution process. The agency, objectors and anybody who signs on as interested parties, work to resolve the issue.
"That is part of the beauty of this thing," says Raymond Smith, the objection and appeal coordinator for the Forest Service at Missoula, Mont. "Under the current appeals process we have had for umpteen jillion years, you are out of the process if you are not one of the appellants. This gives the option and opportunity to be involved all the way through the process."
If objectors are still not satisfied they can sue, but the lawsuit must be based on comments and objections they previously raised.
The process is similar for projects that require only an environmental analysis. Known as EAs, these analyses don't typically include drafts. Instead the agency announces its intention to plan a project and asks the public for general comments under what is known as scoping.
Next, when the agency issues its analysis and draft decision, people would have a chance to object. Since there are no draft environmental analyses, some observers still worry they will have to guess at the agency's direction during scoping comments.
Oppenheimer would like the agency to consider draft analyses. "It could be a time saver and reduce the number of objections that are filed," he says. "We don't want to submit 100-page comment letters."
Gary Macfarlane of the Friends of the Clearwater in Moscow was also relieved the agency intends to issue draft decisions, but he is concerned Forest Service officials might not deal honestly with people who hold nothing back in their comments. Because objections and lawsuits will have to be based on comments, he says citizens will have to detail every issue they have with projects.
The agency could take those concerns to heart and change the project, he says. But they might also choose to rewrite the project to dodge the concerns.
"Now they can paper over the (objections)," he says. "The genuineness of the process is at stake."