Plans for forests no longer require EIS
Conservationists decry ‘streamlining’ step as subverting NEPA

Snow piles up in the San Juan National Forest, north of Durango. The U.S. Forest Serivce recently announced that forest land-management plans, such as the one being revised locally, are no longer subject to environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act./Photo by Jared Boyd

by Missy Votel

The U.S. Forest Service recently announced that formal environmental impact statements will no longer be required for long-term national forest plans.

Currently, two national forests in Southwest Colorado – the San Juan National Forest and Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnsion, or GMUG – are undergoing forest plan revisions. The new rule, which would categorically exclude land-management plans from the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process, was introduced earlier this month after nearly two years in the works. It is being touted by the Forest Service as a streamlining step while conservation groups see it as yet another attempt by the Bush Administration to weaken NEPA.

“The fact that the Forest Service has to do no more of an environmental review for an entire plan than it would for rerouting a trail seems crazy,” said Mark Pearson, executive director for the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

According to the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C., office, the actual writing of management plans has no direct effect on the environment, and as such should not be subjected to NEPA review. Individual projects put forth in the plans, however, will still have to undergo a NEPA analysis.

“Writing management plans has no effect on the environment, which qualifies the individual plans of each national forest for categorical exclusion,” stated the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C., office in a document dated December 2006. “Further specific environmental study will be focused on each project that carries out the plan.”

The document goes on to define a “categorical exclusion” as certain actions that “do not result in significant impacts to the human environment, eliminating the need for lengthier documentation.”

Environmental assessments or the more in-depth environmental impact statements were first required under the Forest Service’s 1982 planning rule.

A forester with the San Juan Public Lands Center, in Durango, said the new rule will not affect the SJNF’s plan revision because the plan includes other federal lands that are still subject to NEPA. “The forest plan is a joint process with the Bureau of Land Management, and their regulations require an EIS,” said Thurman Wilson, associate center manager for planning.

However, the San Juan National Forest’s neighbor to the north does plan on taking advantage of the new short cut. “We are planning to proceed under the new planning rule,” said Carmine Lockwood, planning staff officer for the GMUG. “Basically we’re doing it for the same reason outlined by the Washington office: forest plans just provide strategic direction and don’t commit to projects on the ground.”

Lockwood said that handling environmental analyses on a case-by-case basis makes more sense logistically than doing a blanket EIS for the entire plan. “Environmental impact statements are highly speculative and only forecast what might occur,” he said. “It makes more sense to evaluate projects on the ground with tangible evidence as they come along.”

Lockwood said that over time, the thinking that accompanied the original planning rule of 1982 has proven wrong. “In the early ’80s, the belief was that an EIS for the whole plan would decrease the

need for more EIS’ on a project level, but that has proven untrue,” he said.

However, local environmentalists are baffled by the intent of the new rule, labeling it “ridiculous.” Pearson said despite the Forest Service’s claims of simplifying the process, the new rule will only lead to “self-induced chaos” and more work in the long run.

“You can’t open land to logging and resource extraction without an EIS,” he said. “It just means they’ll have to do another process to make those decisions, which will be inefficient. It seems patently obvious to me that it will cost more money and more staff time and public time in the long run.”

But perhaps more than anything, Pearson said the new rule illustrates a disconnect between Washington and the inner workings of the Forest Service. “It makes you scratch your head and think, ‘D.C. must have no idea of how forest planning works,’” he said. “This administration has done a good job of tying itself in knots. This is just another good example of that.”

Marty Hayden, a spokesman for Earthjustice, in Washington, D.C., said legal challenges to the new rule are likely. “(NEPA) is the law that requires the government to take a hard look at the cumulative impacts of their actions on the forest … forest plans make real decisions. Forest plans zone the forests: what areas are open or closed to logging, what areas are open to off-road vehicle use, what areas are open to backcountry recreation, and lots of other issues.”

In the meantime, the SJNF and GMUG forest plans are undergoing internal review at the state and regional levels. Thurman said he expects the SJNF plan, which began public scoping in January 2005, to be available for public review late next spring or in early summer. •