AP Interview: Forest Service asks public to give rules a chance
DENVER – New rules doing away with formal environmental impact statements for long-term forest management plans make them more relevant to the public and the U.S. Forest Service head for the five-state Rocky Mountain Region said he hopes skeptics give them a chance.Critics say the new rules undermine environmental protection, but Regional Forester Rick Cables says he hopes foresters get the benefit of the doubt as they update closely watched management plans under the new set of rules.The Forest Service announced the new rules in December, saying management plans have no environmental effects and that environmental reviews can be done when individual projects envisioned in the plan are considered.”The rationale is that the plans are not making decisions that affect the land. The plans are more oriented toward sitting down with the public and agreeing on a desired future condition for the landscape,” Cables said.A management plan for the Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands in southeastern Colorado and western Kansas, expected out in a few weeks, will be the first one released nationwide that’s written under the new rules.
Environmentalist groups Defenders of Wildlife and New Mexico-based Forest Guardians have filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington claiming the rule violates federal environmental laws.”We feel the Bush administration is basically dismantling the forest management planning process Congress set up to reform the Forest Service,” said Mike Leahy, staff attorney for Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife.Leahy said important and fundamental decisions are made in a forest management plan. Deferring environmental analysis until individual projects are considered makes it more difficult to make decisions looking at the overall picture, he added.”We would have no problem with them making the process more efficient, more effective and more responsive to the public,” Leahy said. “But analyzing the impacts under (the National Environmental Policy Act) is too important to get rid of.”Cables said he understands there are questions and concerns, but hopes the public gives the process a chance to work. Cables, whose office oversees Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, South Dakota and Nebraska, said he believes the new process gives all parties a chance to work together to decide how a forest should be managed. He said the new rule requires formal monitoring to ensure the agency follows the plan.Sharon Friedman, director of strategic planning for the regional Forest Service, said the public can still challenge the agency’s decisions and will have several opportunities to comment. She said it just makes more sense to analyze projects as they’re proposed.
But it doesn’t make sense to Mark Schofield of the conservation group Western Colorado Congress.”There’s a real lack of certainty under these new regulations,” Schofield said.The previous rules were in force when work started on the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest, but the rules changed in late 2004 after the Forest Service revamped the process. Agency officials said the goal was to streamline planning while allowing local and regional forest managers to respond to changing conditions.Instead, Schofield said, the changes mean the Forest Service isn’t looking at the cumulative impacts of activities on a forest.”This fundamentally changes what a forest plan is. There’s much less certainty and meaning to it,” Schofield said.Release of the preliminary plan for the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest was held up last summer when officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, said they wanted to make sure the document complied with the 2005 federal energy bill.
The Forest Service says the draft likely will be released soon. Cables said he believes western Coloradans will be happy with the result.Cables added that the new planning process likely will be less expensive and take less time. The plan for Colorado’s Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest in the late 1990s cost at least $5 million and took five years to complete.”We think we can produce a forest plan under this new rule in a little over two years and at much reduced cost, less than half, maybe,” Cables said. “For every dollar that we save doing those plans, we can put to implementation. We can actually build trails, maintain trails, do the (tree) thinning or community protection that we feel is critical and we think the public really wants.”—On the Net: U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region: www.fs.fed.us./r2/
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