It's a case of a bureaucratic train wreck creating a congressional train wreck.
After refusing for
decades to apply the National Environmental Policy Act, the U.S.
Forest Service is now applying the law so fiercely that it's put a
host of other programs on the back burner.
Forest Service is delaying timber sales, archaeological studies,
wildlife planning and range improvements so it can grind out
environmental studies on more than 4,000 grazing permits by a Dec.
31, 1995, deadline. At the same time, agency Chief Jack Ward Thomas
is under environmentalist attack for all but giving Congress the
green light to delay or stop the law's application in its
The fight has pitted environmentalists
against each other as well as against ranchers, Congress and the
Forest Service. Two veteran environmental attorneys whose lawsuits
prodded the Forest Service into taking NEPA seriously are at odds
over how the agency should carry it out.
man, it's a mess, it's just a mess," said Tom France, a National
Wildlife Federation lawyer in Montana. "The Forest Service has
decided it has this tremendous NEPA burden, but I think they've
created this burden in a way they can't fulfill. It's created waves
in the environmental and livestock community and created fears of
France, who sued the Beaverhead
National Forest (HCN, 1/23/95), contends the agency should not try
to do too much, too soon, and should follow nationally the path it
is taking on the Beaverhead: doing 10 percent of the studies
annually over 10 years.
But Arizona State
University environmental law professor Joe Feller is concerned the
agency will do too little. Feller handled the Comb Wash case
against the Bureau of Land Management (HCN,
"It's probably true that it's
ultimately impossible to do all this between now and the end of
1995. But I am extremely wary of extending the deadline for doing
these studies," Feller said. "It takes the pressure off the Forest
Service and the pressure should be there. This is a train wreck
partly of their own creation."
Since 1989, top
Forest Service officials have said repeatedly in internal memos
that they had to apply NEPA to grazing. The agency didn't take
steps to comply, however, until late 1994, in the wake of France's
Beaverhead suit, when Chief Thomas formed a task force to
jump-start the process of doing environmental assessments on
Now, due to a quirk in Forest
Service requirements that made 1995 the expiration date for 4,600
grazing permits, the agency must crank out studies for those
permits by Dec. 31. That has forced the Forest Service to budget
nearly $20 million to carry out NEPA work this year and another $25
million for next year, wrecking other parts of the Forest Service
Agency officials acknowledge that other
programs will suffer. But they contend that looking at so many
permits at once has benefits: it allows study of the combined
effects of several ranchers' grazing
"It is true that if we had a longer
period of time we could do more in-depth analyses, but they
certainly are going to be vast improvements over what is out there
now," said Rita Beard, a Gallatin National Forest, Mont., range
specialist who sits on the NEPA task force.
accelerated approach rang alarm bells with ranchers all over the
West after Forest Service officials let it be known that they would
remove cows from grazing allotments where the agency missed its
The U.S. Senate heard the ranchers and
passed separate bills on voice votes giving the Forest Service more
time to complete the studies. One bill, by Senate Minority Leader
Thomas Daschle of South Dakota, extended the deadline by three
years. Another, by South Dakota Republican Larry Pressler, extended
it indefinitely (HCN, 4/17/95). Both bills are now in Senate-House
Forest Service Chief
Thomas angered environmentalists when he told a House subcommittee
hearing in mid-March that "We're not doing this because we love
"I would be delighted if this committee
were to direct me not to do environmental impact statements on
grazing. (But) I don't think you should do that. I think the
consequences are apt to be very severe for our permittees," because
it would inspire environmentalist lawsuits, Thomas
But John Horning of Santa Fe, N.M." s
Forest Guardians said, "If the Daschle-Pressler bills become law,
the national forests will become no more than livestock feedlots.
For the next three years the public has no say in grazing on
Susan Schock of Silver City's
Gila Watch contended that it's better for the Forest Service to
spend money on environmental studies than on pipelines and
livestock watering tanks.
"These problems have been with us for a long time and they will be
with us a long time. A measured approach will get better
For now, however, the Forest Service
is charging ahead on the environmental studies, range specialist
Beard said. Until Congress finishes changing the law, she said, "We
are in a position where we cannot wait."
Tony Davis is a frequent
contributor to High Country News from Albuquerque, New