NEPA Rulemaking Would Nix Public Participation

By Matt Peters
On July 17, 2019

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE*** July 10, 2019        
CONTACT:  Davis Mounger 423.877.4616

Changing Rules for Public Input Threatens National Forest Management Integrity

Public Comment Period ends August 12

ATLANTA-  If the Forest Service has its way, a proposed rule will radically limit the right of citizens to have a voice on the future management of the 188 million acres of the National Forest system.  Under the guise of supposedly streamlining forest management, the public will lose much of its ability to comment on the agency’s projects and long-term management plans. 

“It will be the end of one of the best parts of grassroots democracy in this country,” says Davis Mounger, a member of Tennessee Heartwood and the Sierra Club.  “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 now, if the Forest Service was undertaking a project that had a negative impact on the forest, recreation, the use of taxpayer dollars, or cultural heritage, there was a way to speak up. The agency doesn’t like that, and it wants to operate with less accountability.”

Under the new rule, timber projects of 7300 acres with up to 4200 acres of that involving logging could go through with no public comment. The public would also be shut out of addressing mining permits of up to a square mile in size. Important protections for sensitive species would be greatly reduced, and in a serious threat to transparency and public accountability, the agency would not even have to inform the public that a CE’d project was even taking place- essentially eliminating a public record of many of its actions.

Mounger says these changes, particularly the last, are “almost Orwellian in scope.  What are we to make of an agency what wants to not only shut out public oversight of its workings, but to even conceal what they are doing?”

To raise awareness of what the public will be losing, conservationists and government transparency activists will be rallying at the Forest Service’s Southern Region Headquarters in Atlanta on the 18th at noon EST.

There is a 60 day comment period for the public to respond on the Forest Service’s website. The comment period ends August 12. 

Many conservationists and outdoorspeople see this proposal as part of an ongoing erosion of citizen rights on their public lands that has been happening for several years.  Mounger says, “In the 1980’s and 1990’s, regular people from across the country became advocates for their local forests.  The public participation rights under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) gave them the ability to bring reform. It curtailed the worst excesses of the subsidized timber program and really increased the professionalism of the Service, particularly in the South- which at that time was a kind of sacrifice zone in an agency that wanted to meet its timber sale volume targets. Unfortunately, these new rules will hit the South the hardest.  By upping the acres that the agency can have an unaccountable project on, you’re going to see much of its work go on with no public oversight. Out West they have really large projects that require comprehensive public reviews- down here, they keep the projects smaller.”

While the agency claims in its publicity that these changes are to help streamline efficient work and restore ecosystems, Tennessee Heartwood director Sheryl Campbell disputes this: “The agency has less trouble with so-called ‘gridlock’ when they engage the public.  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.” 

Campbell also says that the forest restoration claim is often deceptive. “The agency has spent decades claiming to fix the problems that happened earlier when clearcutting was out of control.  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”.

Forest Service Comment Portal:  Improving Environmental Analysis and Decision Making | US Forest Service