Forest Service scrambles to obey law it long ignored


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.

The 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 tracks.

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.

"Oh, 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 lawsuits."

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, 1/24/94).

"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 grazing permits.

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 budget.

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 activities.

"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.

The 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 deadline.

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 conference committees.

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 NEPA.

"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 said.

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 national forests."

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.

France countered: "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 solutions."

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 Mexico.