Budget Deal Slashes Public's Oversight of National Forests
Published on Dec 23, 2011 - 8:36:16 AM
WASHINGTON, Dec. 22, 2011 - In a major blow to public oversight of the national forest system, the 2012 Omnibus Appropriations Act — which now awaits President Obama's signature — includes a rider that eliminates the public's ability to administratively appeal Forest Service management decisions. The change, which applies to all management actions across the 193-million-acre national forest system, will diminish opportunities for the public to weigh in on timber sales, oil and gas leasing and other activities affecting forests, recreation, wildlife and pristine landscapes. Instead, it leaves litigation as the public's only recourse against illegal Forest Service decisions.
"This year's appropriations bill is a bad deal for the American public and our national forests," said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "National forests are publicly owned lands that deserve public oversight. Curtailing the public's participation will mean more bad timber sales, drilling and other development proposals."
The bill replaces administrative appeals with a Bush-era "pre-decisional" objection process that only allows the public to "object" to management proposals before they've been finalized. The bill also reduces the amount of time that the public has to respond to specific proposals — from 45 to 30 days. In addition, it includes a sweeping, vague clause allowing the Forest Service to bypass even the pre-decisional objection processes whenever it determines that emergency circumstances exist.
The rollbacks in public participation come just as the Forest Service is re-writing and substantively weakening National Forest Management Act regulations that provide the framework for national forest management nationwide. After being struck down numerous times by the courts, the Forest Service is again seeking to replace longstanding enforceable standards for wildlife and watersheds with largely unenforceable discretionary provisions. A final rule is expected early in the new year.
"For decades, national forest policy trended toward stronger environmental safeguards and more public involvement and oversight," said McKinnon. "This week's elimination of administrative appeals, along with the attempted weakening of safeguards in the planning rule, mark a drastic step backwards for our national forest system — all on the Obama administration's watch."
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