Absent Analysis, Forest Planning Rule Assumes No Impact

WASHINGTON, DC, February 7, 2008 (ENS) – Environmental attorney Trent Orr of the nonprofit public interest law firm Earthjustice warns that the Bush administration is again attempting to remove key protections for U.S. national forests.

This attempt was evident, he says, today, when the U.S. Forest Service released its court-ordered Final Environmental Impact Statement for the 2008 Planning Rule.

In it, the Service selects a preferred method for developing sweeping land management plans that the agency said will “provide the framework for all resource and recreation management on national forests and grasslands nationwide.”

The Service insists it welcomes public involvement in the planning process for the 193 million acres of National Forest lands.

“We’re proud of this vitally important planning process and yet we recognize that improvements were needed to emphasize more public collaboration, to be more adaptive to changing environmental conditions, and to ensure the protection of wildlife,” said Joel Holtrop, deputy chief of the National Forest System.

Spindly, unhealthy trees fill in a
logged over area. (Photo courtesy FFNR)

After receiving and considering over 79,000 comments on the draft environmental impact statement, the Forest Service developed Alternative M as their preferred alternative. “The alternative is based on public comment and builds on the 1982, 2002, and 2005 Planning Rules and years of professional forest planning experience,” the Service says.

It provides “extensive public participation and offers an approach to quickly respond to changing natural resource conditions,” said the Service.

“This preferred alternative expands public involvement by requiring early and frequent public dialogue in all phases of the development, implementation and monitoring of land management plans,” said David Dillard, director of Ecosystem Management Coordination.

“This exceeds National Environmental Policy Act requirements for public involvement,” he said.

Orr disagrees.

Like the draft released this summer, he says, the Final EIS just states that none of the alternatives would affect the environment.

“This doesn’t come close to complying with the National Environmental Policy Act.”

The Service’s biological assessment of the new planning regulations “concludes that these will have no effect on any species listed as endangered or threatened, despite their abandonment of existing protections for wildlife in the national forests.”

The Final EIS was ordered almost a year ago in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Judge Phyllis Hamilton found that Bush administration officials had failed to do a legally required EIS to determine how weakening protections for wildlife, clean water, old growth, and public involvement in the planning process would affect the nation’s forests.

“The national forest planning rules are like the Constitution for our national forests, and the Bush administration tried to throw out the Bill of Rights,” said Orr, who argued the case before Judge Hamilton.

The Final EIS reveals that the new regulations eliminate wildlife and diversity protections just as the 2005 Bush Rule did, Orr says, adding, “The new regulations substitute “Categorical Exclusions” for Environmental Impact Statements as the rule for forest plans.”

“The Forest Service appears to be rushing out yet another set of regulations that weaken protections for wildlife and biological diversity on the national forests,” Orr said. “This proposal will continue to favor industrial forestry over protecting clean streams and fisheries.”

“Not only is the Bush administration trying to seriously weaken key protections for our National Forests, they pretend that these actions won’t have any effect,” said Kate Freund, legislative associate for Earthjustice. “They have once again failed to make a good-faith effort to follow the law.”

“One change in the latest version would give forest managers complete discretion to decide how future forest plans are analyzed under NEPA, or even whether environmental impacts are considered at all,” said Orr.

Last October, 68 members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter to the Forest Service opposing the proposed National Forest management changes and calling for thorough environmental review of the rule.

“NEPA is our ‘look before you leap’ law, which ensures openness in federal decision-making, said Orr. “By only paying lip-service to analyzing environmental impacts and seeking to exclude future forest plans from NEPA, the Bush administration is thumbing its nose at the court, Congress, and the American people.”

Read the Planning Rule of 2008 Final EIS here: [www.fs.fed.us]

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