Forest Foul-Up

Environmentalists win a battle for openness in wildlands management

Everything was just hunky dory with the Coronado National Forest's current planning process. Then a bunch of pesky environmentalists had to go and spoil things.

Seems the tree-huggers actually wanted details on the how the plan would impact animals and forest health. Turns out a federal judge felt the same. And so a string of cheery public planning meetings, recently held by the Coronado, may all be for naught.

Here's the deal: Several forests, including the Coronado, are updating their forest-management plans, as required by the National Forest Management Act of 1976. This marks the Coronado's first revamping in two decades, and the new plan was slated for completion in a couple of years. It would consider everything from cattle grazing and off-road vehicle access to specially protected wild, scenic and research areas.

But while Coronado's plan is big on "the vision thing," it's mighty short on particulars. And that's due to new U.S. Forest Service planning guidelines that each of the nation's 155 federal forests were required to follow.

Gathered into what's called the "2005 Rule," these guidelines alter several longstanding elements of forest planning. For example, individual forest plans--such as the Coronado's--are no longer required to include specific wildlife protection guidelines.

By contrast, the regulations give forest managers greater power in decisions regarding logging, grazing, mining and other uses of federal land. It also releases them from the mandate that no wildlife species within their forests become endangered, or even threatened.

Forest officials are also largely released from complex and time-consuming environmental impact statements (EIS)--mandated in the past--to specifically gauge how new plans will affect wildlife and the environment. It's the EIS process that allows broad public input and gives conservation groups the tools for fully evaluating forest projects.

To critics, this all carries a strong whiff of the Bush administration, which has attempted to relax environmental protections at nearly every turn. And they argue that abandoning concrete safeguards in forest planning will allow commercial forest users far more leeway on federal lands.

In November, 15 environmental groups took the Forest Service to court over these changes. And it's worth noting that a co-defendant in the suit--alongside the federal government--was the American Forest and Paper Association, an industry trade organization.

On March 30, U.S. District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton ruled that the Forest Service had violated several laws. For instance, Judge Hamilton said the agency hadn't gauged environmental impacts of the 2005 regulations. Nor had the government gathered public input in hammering the rule together.

While the agency argued that the 2005 Rule itself was essentially just a piece of paper, and had no environmental impact either way, Judge Hamilton disagreed, noting that the Forest Service--and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture--had no evidence to back such claims. She held that the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, required such analysis.

"Given the 2005 Rule's potential indirect effects on listed species," Judge Hamilton wrote, "combined with the USDA's lack of documentation in support of their 'no effect' determination, the failure to consult and/or prepare any type of biological analysis in conjunction with the 2005 Rule was arbitrary and capricious."

Ultimately, Judge Hamilton dispatched the 2005 Rule back to the USDA for analysis--and plenty of public comment. The judge also placed an injunction against applying those guidelines as they now stand.

Thus, the current planning processes in some half-dozen forests, including the Coronado, groaned to a sullen halt.

To Greta Anderson, the government has only itself to blame. She's a conservation advocate with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "How does the (Forest Service) think it can simply circumvent NEPA and the Endangered Species Act?" she asks.

As such, she's glad to see the 2005 Rule hit the road. "We were concerned that it contained too much wriggle room," she says, "and that forest managers would assert that wiggle in site-specific ways."

Bob Davis disagrees. He's director of air and watershed planning for the Forest Service's Southwestern Region 3, headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M. And he argues that his agency was simply attempting to fashion a more flexible document with the 2005 Rule. "We're trying to get to forest plans that are more focused on descriptions of desired conditions, of what we're trying to move toward.

"But among our opponents, there's the underlying assumption that we're trying to create a new rule that helps speed timber sales or oil and gas operations or those types of things," he says. "None of those types of projects are set up by this planning process. They still have to go through their own NEPA reviews."

He adds that the Coronado and other forests have held many public meetings under the 2005 Rule. "So the idea that somehow this process has reduced public collaboration is counterintuitive to what we're actually doing."

But Anderson says public input is just swell--if it actually results in concrete guidelines for specific forest projects. "We've given them a ton of information. But we don't get anything back as to what their plans are. We don't end up with any documents to respond to."

Either way, it seems that the Forest Service is capitulating: In May, it ordered an EIS for the 2005 Rule itself, addressing a major concern raised by Judge Hamilton.

The alternative was endless haggling over legal points, says Davis. "We had very good momentum in our planning process across Arizona. If we have to wait another year, or year and a half, until this is fully resolved in the courts, we'd seriously lose momentum that's hard to regain."

But to Anderson, that sounds like déjà vu all over again: "Now they saying this new draft EIS will be out in July. We're hoping that gives them enough time to incorporate all the expensive (analysis) required.

"You know, the reason they got into trouble the first time was for not incorporating public comment or analyzing (the 2005 Rule). So it's confusing how they could be ready to go with a draft EIS so suddenly."

Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups are waiting and watching. On May 7, the Center dispatched a letter to Regional Forester Harv Forsgren. The letter carried a terse warning: "Please ... be advised that we will be closely monitoring any national forests in Region 3 that move forward with forest plan revisions or amendments to ensure there isn't any improper implantation of the 2005 or (earlier) regulations."

And so the gauntlet has been thrown--and the openness of future forest management hangs in the balance.