- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Forest Service is pushing ahead with new rules that will exclude environmental studies from forest management plans and diminish public comment, despite an active lawsuit and opposition from key Democrats who will control the next Congress.

The regulation revises how the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — passed by Congress 30 years ago during the Nixon administration — is enforced.

Listing 15-year forest planning projects as a “categorical exclusion” allows planners to skip the costly and timely tasks of conducting “environmental assessments” or “environmental impact statements” to determine how logging or recreation affects the land, water or animals not already protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Public comment is also required under NEPA but has been revamped to water down the effectiveness of the public’s wants when planning projects in the nation’s 155 forests, says Marty Hayden, legislative director of the environmental group Earthjustice.

The group has filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service.

“The forest plan is forestry zoning that says where parts can be open to logging, off-road vehicles and back-country recreation; it’s the overall zoning plan,” Mr. Hayden said.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, West Virginia Democrat and incoming chairman of the House Resources Committee, said the Forest Service should be “taken to the woodshed” for the regulation.

“Changes in fundamental forest policy should be made with the cautious precision of a whittling knife,” Mr. Rahall said. “Instead, the Forest Service is slashing forest laws with a high-powered chain saw.”

A spokeswoman said the issue is at the top of Mr. Rahall’s list for review next year and that the representative is “considering some remedial legislation.”

Fred Norbury, associate deputy chief of the Forest Service, said 30 years of studies has shown the information “just was not useful.”

“It ran into trouble,” Mr. Norbury said, because of “new information, new court rulings, different budgets from Congress, fires, windstorms and new endangered species listings.”

More opportunities for public comment exist under the new regulation, said Mr. Norbury, who called opposition “completely wrong and at odds with Forest Service philosophy.”

“There is a massive misunderstanding; all that NEPA required is a 45-day public comment. We’re trying to create a process that is open all the way through,” said Mr. Norbury, who added that public comment would extend to 90 days.

However, environmentalists said the old system presented more than one option at the beginning of the process to resolve a problem, which is being replaced with only one solution on which to comment at the end of the process.

‘It is unprecedented,” Mr. Hayden said. “Congress passed a national policy act to make sure there was meaningful public involvement in the process. … Basically, they are telling the public ‘it’s our way or the highway.’ ”

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