A regional coalition of conservationist groups say the U.S. Forest Service has proposed a new rule that dramatically limits public participation in the future management of 188 million acres of national forest land, and they're planning to rally against it July 18 at the agency's regional headquarters in Atlanta.
The rule change was proposed June 13, initiating a 60-day comment period for the public to weigh in.
That's what the rule change is about; public input, or less of it.
"It will be the end of one of the best parts of grassroots democracy in this country," Tennessee Heartwood and Sierra Club member Davis Mounger said in a statement on the federal move. "There are few areas of the federal government where the common citizen has had a clear path to have a voice and a clear path of redress to make a difference."
Until the proposed change to the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, members of the public were provided avenues for their voices to be heard whether in support or opposition without regard to an activity's size.
"The agency doesn't like that, and it wants to operate with less accountability," Mounger said.
The Forest Service gives the reasoning behind the change — called Environmental Analysis and Decision Making — on its official website regarding the proposed revisions to NEPA procedures.
"The proposed rule will help the Forest Service make timelier decisions based on high-quality, science-based analysis. This improves the Forest Service's ability to get work on the ground while meeting our environmental stewardship responsibilities. The updates in the proposed rule incorporate lessons learned and experience gained from our staff and partners over the past 10 years," the forest service states.
The Environmental Analysis and Decision Making change effort launched in September 2017 "is part of a broader USDA Forest Service effort to create more resilient landscapes and better serve the public by focusing our land management efforts across boundaries and modernizing our internal processes," the agency states.
The forest service used input gathered at a series of nationwide roundtable discussions in spring 2018 to "identify the highest-priority actions for modernizing our environmental analysis processes," the agency states.
TO COMMENT ON THE PROPOSED POLICY
Anyone wishing to comment on the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed policy change can go to the agency’s online comment portal at https://www.fs.fed.us/managing-land/eadm. The deadline for comments is Aug. 12.
Mounger, who attended the roundtable, said the proposed policy would mean that timber projects tracts of 7,300 acres or less that involve up to 4,200 acres of logging could go through without public comment. The public also would be shut out of addressing mining permits for sites up to a square mile in size, he said.
Tennessee Heartwood director Sheryl Campbell says despite its claims the agency's proposal to further bar the public from decision-making does nothing for efficiency.
"The agency has less trouble with so-called 'gridlock' when they engage the public," Campbell said. "There's a myth that the public is always suing the agency and tying their hands. When they have been transparent and solicited input, they've usually avoided litigation."
IF YOU GO
Opponents to the U.S. Forest Service’s Environmental Analysis and Decision Making change effort will gather at noon on July 18 at the Forest Service Southern Region Headquarters at 1720 Peachtree Road NW in Atlanta. More information on the rally is available at www.tennesseeheartwood.org or call 423-877-4616.
Campbell said that the forest restoration claim is often deceptive.
"The agency has spent decades claiming to fix the problems that happened earlier when clear cutting was out of control," she said. "Unfortunately, you can go to forests in the region like the Cherokee and the Pisgah and see that a lot of this supposed ecosystem restoration is just more subsidized logging that just continues the problem."
"The Forest Service is required by law to take public comments on this proposal, but it we don't speak up now, it could be our last chance," the Southern Environmental Law Center says in a statement of talking points on the federal move. "If the proposal moves forward, the public won't receive notice or a chance to object to specific projects in the future."
Public comments on the policy are due by Aug. 12.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.