Public participation in Forest Service projects may change

By Meg Scherch Peterson
Posted 8/22/19

The Forest Service wants to revise how it implements the National Environmental Policy Act, commonly referred to as NEPA, in order to increase the efficiency of how it analyzes the environmental impact of various projects and actions.

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Public participation in Forest Service projects may change

Posted

Colorew Mexicans across the occupational spectrum - from timber harvesters to grazing lease permittees to small business owners - are aware that broad public participation in the management of its national forests is fundamental. After all, national forests cover 25 million acres in New Mexico, or about one-third of its total land area.

A proposed rule change by the U.S. Forest Service, however, would alter the level of that participation. It would require less review of more forest projects.

What's happening

The Forest Service wants to revise how it implements the National Environmental Policy Act, commonly referred to as NEPA, in order to increase the efficiency of how it analyzes the environmental impact of various projects and actions.

The notice of the proposed changes was published in June in the Federal Register and can be reviewed at fs.fed.us/emc/nepa/nepa_procedures/index.htm. Deadline for comments is Monday (Aug. 26).

Why the change

USFS Chief Victoria Christiansen stated on the official Forest Service website that "our current way of doing business is inefficient" and that the proposed changes are necessary in order for the service to deal with a "backlog of restoration work."

Christiansen joined the Forest Service in 2010 after previously serving as deputy chief for State and Private Forestry, a branch of the Forest Service that provides technical and financial assistance to states and to private landowners for forest management.

Problems

Arizona congressman and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Raul Grijalva, contended in a recent letter to Christiansen that the proposed changes "would severely weaken environmental review and significantly restrict public input."

The Aug. 5 letter, signed by 26 members of Congress, was made available to the Taos News from the communications director for the House Natural Resources Democrats.

One area drawing fire from some groups are proposed changes in a level of environmental review known commonly as a CE, or Categorical Exclusion.

CEs typically are reserved for projects not requiring the more in-depth and extensive review of an Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Statement. As an example, forest plan revisions require the more robust review of an EIS.

Denise Ottaviano, public affairs officer for Carson National Forest, acknowledged by email that the proposed NEPA changes "would create a new suite of categorical exclusions."

"Proposed new categorical exclusions include activities such as routine restoration projects; administrative and recreation facility management; road and trail management; and special use authorizations. The proposed new categorical exclusions will reduce process delays for routine activities by months or years," she said.

"The Carson National Forest will continue to seek public input and work with interested stakeholders," she said.

Other groups have yet to weigh in. Carlos Salazar, president of Northern New Mexico Stockman's Association, said by telephone that he was unaware of the proposed NEPA changes. Salazar, in an August news story published by the Associated Press and Santa Fe New Mexican, has been critical of the Carson's forest-planning process. He feels the Carson has not kept the ranchers' organization informed.

"We've been ignored," he told the Taos News.

Meanwhile, The Wilderness Society, a national conservation organization, was reluctant to release an official statement to the media until the comment period closed. However, Alison Flint, director of litigation and agency policy, said by email that "the proposal appears to be in service of the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda. It would drastically reduce or eliminate public involvement and the role of science in the management of our shared national forests, ultimately damaging public trust and the Forest Service's credibility."

The Taos News also reached out for comment about the expedited NEPA process to Chris Stagg and Dash Hegeman at Taos Ski Valley, which was granted a categorical exclusion last September for expansion of its trail system. The ski valley was unable to comment by press time.

Editor's note: Meg Scherch Peterson is a member of Sangre de Cristo Audubon and submitted comments to Carson National Forest about the proposed trails expansion.

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