Forest Service accomplishes appeal-proof timber sales

  • A sale in Montana will clearcut more trees in the Lolo Forest

    William Haskins
 

The Forest Service says it has improved the procedure by which citizens can appeal timber sales, but in the agency's Northern Region, citizens have reason to suspect the opposite.

Since the Forest Service revised its procedures in January, 23 citizen appeals have been filed against timber sales in the region. Only one has been upheld.

"They've instituted a phony process," says Mike Bader, executive director of the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies. His group has lost six straight appeals.

It took an act of Congress last year to stop the Forest Service from abolishing the appeals procedure altogether. Adminstrative appeals had become one of the most powerful tools by which environmentalists influenced timber programs, but the agency said it was burdened by a flood of frivolous challenges. Environmentalists countered that the agency could easily reject any appeal which had no basis and that handling concerns administratively was far less burdensome than litigation.

"It's still too soon to see how the new regs will play out, but we're getting a definite "so sue us' attitude from the Forest Service," says Dan Chandler, executive director of Bozeman's American Wildlands. The group has lost five appeals under the new regulations.

On their face, the changes call for increased public involvement in the planning stages of forest projects. Steve Solem, appeals coordinator for the Forest Service's regional office in Missoula, says a new 30-day comment period on all environmental assessments gives citizens a chance to present their case before a final decision is made. Anybody who has "expressed interest" in a project, through either oral or written comments, is allowed to appeal.

"There is better up-front public involvement under the new regulations," Solem says. But many environmentalists say the changes hide the agency from public scrutiny.

For instance, when an appeal exposes a flaw in a planned timber sale, now the agency can patch up the flaw without having to call off the sale or send it out for another public review, Chandler says. Under the old regulations, the appeals officer had to remand a flawed timber sale back to a forest supervisor, giving the public a chance to oversee the reworking of the sale. Citizens could appeal again if the reworking failed to answer the original concern.

Under the new regulations, "There is no accountability after the appeal decision," says Chandler. "We have no way to know if these instructions are followed. The purpose of the new regulations was to reduce litigation, but that only works if they take you seriously."

In the nine months since the agency grudgingly issued the new regulations, the only appeal upheld in the Northern Region had the effect of increasing forest access. A Libby, Mont., resident had appealed road closures on the Kootenai National Forest, and the agency decided to let the roads remain open.

The writer free-lances from Missoula, Montana.