Mary O’Brien: The newest Forest Service idea: Exclude public comments

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) From left, Kevin Mueller, program director of Utah Environmental Congress, Stanley Kitchen, a botanist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Mary O'Brien with the Grand Canyon Trust inspect an aspen tree cutting to determine the newest growth and the health of the stand in the area of Upper Box Creek Reservoir in Fishlake National Forest in Utah in August 2017.

I saw a sign last February for a fire prevention meeting with the Bureau of Land Management in our rural Castle Valley of southeastern Utah. At the meeting, the BLM told us they were going to issue an environmental assessment for removing up to 75% of the pinyon and juniper trees on 1,300 acres in the valley to protect our town from wildfire. A public comment period would start soon.

Within a few days, a half dozen of us set out to look at the areas mapped for removal of pinyon (of 4 inches or less in diameter) and juniper (of 8 inches or less in diameter). We noticed that about half of the valley’s pinyon — young and old — were dead or dying from drought. We noticed that most of the juniper that were making the forest too dense were less than 4 inches in diameter. We noticed that juniper on some of the blackbrush areas were mostly older and scattered, with not much in between.

We asked the BLM to come see what we were seeing. They did. Twice. We jointly devised a better plan: leave all the pinyon — they’re already in trouble, and our pinyon jays (who are also in trouble) need them. Cut only juniper of 4 inches diameter or less. Leave the blackbrush openings alone. The resulting EA flew forward to the BLM’s final decision with approval by the town council and interested residents.

For decades, this kind of public involvement has been the norm for both BLM and the U.S. Forest Service. Now the Forest Service, manager of our nation’s 154 national forests, has decided that they could be much more “efficient” if they simply quit communicating with the public.

Under their current proposal (open for comments until August 12), 93.3% of all Forest Service decisions will lose all the current advance notice and public comment requirements.

This change includes the 80.1% of all Forest Service projects and permits that are approved under what is called a Categorical Exclusion, meaning the agency figures the project or permit will have no individual or cumulative significant effects on the environment.

It proposes to stop giving advance notice of these projects and an opportunity to tell the agency that it’s missed an important harm (e.g., dying pinyon). The proposed change also converts projects that were EAs due to their greater potential for harm (13.2%), into categorical exclusions. No analysis; no public input.

The Forest Service gives examples of what they will consider a categorical exclusion:

  • Commercial logging of up to 4,200 acres of trees for “resilience activities” even if the harvest does not meet the forest plan’s “goals, objectives, or desired conditions.”

  • Constructing five miles of new Forest Service roads. Converting a route that was created by illegal off-road vehicle driving into a new Forest Service motorized route “when determined appropriate.” (How’s that for an incentive to drive off authorized routes?).

  • Approving a surface-use plan for four more oil and/or gas drill sites plus one mile of new road plus three miles of pipelines.

  • Issuing a permit to commercial companies to park thousands of honeybee hives (at 10,000-30,000 non-native bees per hive) on the forest where the honeybees will outcompete native bees and transmit diseases to them.

You won’t be told the permit is being issued, and the Forest Service won’t need to write a memo or keep a file on the decision.

The list goes on and on with the result that only 6.7% of all Forest Service decisions will require any public comment whatsoever. And the BLM? With Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt (a former oil industry lobbyist) at the helm, expect to soon be cut out of commenting on nearly all BLM decisions as well.

These are your public lands. Sometimes you know where the pinyon are dying and the agency doesn’t. Sometimes you have a suggestion or research on how fire can be managed without clearcutting your valley.

Public involvement is what keeps the Forest Service (and BLM) somewhat tied to science and all of the nation’s public. Comment now, or you won’t be able to comment in the future when it’s in your backyard. One good portal for sending comments is OurForestsOurVoice.org.

Mary O'Brien | Grand Canyon Trust

Mary O’Brien lives in Castle Valley and serves as Utah Forests Program director for the Grand Canyon Trust.