Hundreds of scientists, including four from the University of Montana, have spoken as one in their opposition to a U.S. Forest Service proposal to squelch public input on future forest projects.
Just before the comment deadline on Monday, 230 scientists from across the nation signed and submitted a letter opposing a proposed Forest Service rule that would reduce public involvement currently required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Forest Service manages federal land that belongs to the American people, so the public should be able to have a say in how it’s managed, the scientists said. Especially if they have critical knowledge of how certain projects could degrade the land or ecosystems.
“It takes scientists to understand whether what they’re proposing is really ecologically sustainable or not,” said Dick Hutto, UM biology professor emeritus. “Sometimes they’ll rename particular activities to be things like ‘restoration’ or ‘fire protection,’ but it’s up to us to decide whether we want to believe that or not.
“Unless a scientist knows the biology and can say ‘Wait a minute, what you’re proposing is actually not sustainable in terms of the ecological side of things’ – unless we can say that, then who’s looking over what’s being proposed?”
That’s why, for almost 50 years, NEPA has required federal land management agencies to ask the public for early input on proposed projects through a process called scoping. After that, depending on the size of the project, agencies develop either environmental assessments or more in-depth environmental impact statements to analyze their actions and consider alternatives.
The public is allowed to comment on both the initial and final drafts of these studies. Participation is important because only people or entities who have sent public comments are allowed to later challenge the validity of the final projects in court.
Thomas Power, UM natural resource economics professor, has provided comments on several Forest Service projects questioning the agency’s economic analyses, which tend to focus only on logging sales and jobs and don’t consider environmental costs.
In some cases, he has joined successful lawsuits – what he calls “handles” – but only after the Forest Service failed to address his comments. Now, he’s concerned that recourse could disappear.
“The way it goes now, there’s potentially two reviews: one by citizens and scientists, and the other by the courts. But only if there’s a record. What they’re going to do with this is get rid of the record,” Power said. “So what it will come down to is they can say whatever they want, whether it’s correct or not, and there’s no handles to get the Forest Service to take seriously the problems that people see in the analysis they provide.”
Under the proposed rule, the Forest Service could use comments from an earlier proposal to justify a project instead of asking for new comments. Also, if the project qualifies for a less-intensive environmental assessment, “the level of public engagement is left to agency discretion,” and scoping can be ignored.
The rule also expands the the size and type of projects where the agency wouldn’t need to ask for comment, a loophole called a ‘categorical exclusion.’ In particular, the Forest Service could sidestep public input on projects up to 7,300 acres – more than 11 square miles – and allow up to 5 miles of new roads as long as the project was classified as “restoration.”
In addition to logging, the new rules would reduce comment on mining projects and oil and gas drilling, as well as the installation of pipelines and transmission lines.
“We now know how environmentally devastating these accumulated harms to water quality are around the world,” said fisheries scientist Chris Frissell of the UM Flathead Biological Station. “The Forest Service’s irresponsible proposal to build more roads without strict limits on road construction and active restoration of the existing road system will increase harm to wild fish and our rivers and streams.”
Categorical exclusions were intended to apply to projects that wouldn’t have an effect on the environment so a study wouldn’t be needed. Such projects might include repaving a campground road or similar maintenance to existing facilities.
But over time, especially under the Bush administration, the Forest Service has broadened its use of categorical exclusions, to the point of trying to prevent the public from commenting on forest plans, which usually guide agency actions for two decades or more.
In 2007, Rep. Raul Grijalva, Ariz., called the changes “management by exclusion” and said “the result is less public involvement in their publicly owned national forests, less analysis of decisions affecting individual forests, and the National Forest System as a whole.”
This time, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said the changes are needed to “complete project decision making in a timelier manner,” and reduce backlogs for commonly proposed actions.
But in the letter, the scientists said the effort to speed up logging and other extractive activities “would hamstring the agency from making informed decisions in an era complicated by unprecedented climate change and a legacy of land-use impacts to the national forest system.”
Climate change is increasing the risk of large wildfires in areas where it exacerbates heat and drought, but it is also forcing animal and plant species to move into new areas. Species can’t move without corridors of intact forest and need good habitat to move to, so large logging projects can be a problem.
So the scientists asked Christiansen to pull back on categorical exclusions, keep scoping for all projects and ensure that the presence of endangered or threatened species is not ignored in favor of financial gain. Finally, they asked the agency to reverse the effect of years of personnel cuts and hire more scientists to conduct proper environmental studies.
Power isn’t optimistic that the letter will sway the Trump administration, which has repeatedly prioritized resource extraction over all else on public land. But the letter could turn into a legal handle.
“The chance that this will change the minds of the political appointees at the top seems pretty low. But this may end up being an important step from the courts’ point of view,” Power said. “What the Forest Service is saying is we don’t have the resources to study 5,000 projects. I don’t think the court will buy that. Get the resources. If they have the money to thin millions of acres, manage all forest lands, they certainly have the money to do some studies.”
UM forestry professor Diana Six also signed the letter, announcing it Tuesday night on Twitter: “Proud to say I signed this,” with a link to the scientists’ combined response.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org