- Associated Press - Monday, June 16, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Without any public notice or announcement, Gov. Tom Corbett has successfully petitioned the U.S. Agriculture Department to designate the entire Allegheny National Forest as an “insect and disease treatment area,” which forest advocates say will lead to more logging.

Using new authority granted to state governors in the 2014 federal Farm Bill, Mr. Corbett, in a letter dated April 4, said such a designation would allow for “expedited treatment” in areas where a broad array of insects and diseases is causing forest decline in the Allegheny National Forest now and for the next 15 years.

The Farm Bill provisions will allow treatment - including timbering, tree thinning and herbicide use - on “forest restoration projects” of up to 3,000 acres each throughout the state’s only national forest. Such expanded forest management programs can be planned and approved without the Forest Service conducting new or site-specific environmental assessments or impact statements required by the National Environmental Protection Act. And the provisions also suspend requirements that the public be given an opportunity to appeal individual treatment projects.

The governor’s three-page letter, which his press office released earlier this month in response to questions by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was also among the documents and emails obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through a Freedom of Information Act request by Ryan Talbot of the Allegheny Defense Project, a forest advocacy organization. Those emails show that national and state timber and forest products industry officials initiated discussions in February with the Forest Service and state forestry and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources officials about using the Farm Bill “treatment area” provisions in the Allegheny National Forest. Those discussions led to the designation of 98 percent of the forest for “treatment.”

“The problem is the secrecy, and also that this petition opens up the ANF to logging all over the forest with a much-streamlined review process and elimination of public appeals,” said Mr. Talbot. “The Forest Service will claim this is a collaborative process, but there should have first been public input and comment on the designations.”

“The Forest Service and Corbett administration worked behind closed doors with the timber industry to decide how much of the Allegheny National Forest should be designated as ‘insect and disease treatment areas,’ ” said Peter Wray, conservation chair of the Allegheny Group of the Sierra Club. “The Allegheny is a national forest and Gov. Corbett and the timber industry should not be allowed to drown out the voices of citizens who have an equal right to guide the management of the Allegheny.”

Nadine Pollock, a Forest Service ecosystems staff officer who participated in the email exchanges with industry and other state and federal foresters, said the Farm Bill did not require public involvement in the designation process, but there will be early public involvement, “full collaboration” and “totally transparent public involvement” on specific treatment projects in the ANF.

“We will want to encourage everyone to be part of the early process so we can have purpose-and-need goals that everyone can understand,” Ms. Pollock said. “We guarantee this will be an open process.”

Although the governor’s press office has issued more than 80 releases since April 4, when the governor petitioned the Forest Service, Patrick Henderson, Mr. Corbett’s energy executive and deputy chief of staff, said the petitioning and its approval wasn’t mentioned in any of them because “while definitely good news … this was for the most part a local issue.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a release thanking the Forest Service for approving his forest treatment designation request on May 21, and West Virginia State forester Randy Dye did the same in a release on June 2.

Mr. Henderson said the Forest Service designation was based on factual assessments of forest health by federal and state foresters, adding that the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association and the Allegheny Hardwoods Utilization Group also provided information and support.

‘TOO MUCH LATITUDE’

The Forest Service announced May 20 that it had accepted the petitions from Pennsylvania and 34 other states for designating 45.6 million acres of national forest land for expedited treatment of diseased and pest-infested forests, and removal of dead or dying trees in wildfire-prone forests.

Ernie Reed, president of Heartwood, an Eastern forest and community advocacy organization based in Bloomington, Ill., said in an Allegheny Defense Project news release that restricting public oversight and appeals allows the Forest Service too much latitude to do controversial cutting.

“History has shown that when legislators conspire to allow the Forest Service to operate without environmental or public accountability, our forests, rivers and wildlife pay the price,” he said.

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