If all else fails ...

 

The Forest Service announced this week that it's taking a bold new tack in forest planning -- talking to the public.

The agency has been trying for more than a decade to modernize its forest planning process, which is supposed to guide the creation of plans for each national forest that specify areas for logging, thinning, grazing and controlled burns; indicate which areas can be used by motor vehicles and which are eligible for wilderness designation; and so on. But its 2000 planning rule was too complex and was never implemented. The Bush administration attempted rewrites, but environmentalists charged that the changes would weaken wildlife protections and allow forest plans to escape scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act. The changes were struck down in court three times (see our post "Three Strikes for the Forest Service" and our story "The End of Analysis Paralysis?").

Now the agency is trying again. The Billings Gazette reports on the new approach:

As part of its creation of a new rule, the agency webcast a science forum Monday in Washington, D.C.

Then, across the United States beginning on Thursday, a series of national and regional roundtables have been scheduled ... (which will) include a full day’s worth of briefings, talks by officials and small group discussions to gather public comments. ...

Then the Forest Service will create (a proposed rule and) an environmental impact statement including some of the ideas from the meetings.

The Forest Service expects to publish a draft rule by December and a final rule by November 2011.

"We encourage broad public participation in our regional roundtables,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell (in a press release). "Through collaboration we will be able to better address the current and future needs of the National Forest System such as restoration, protecting watersheds, addressing climate change, sustaining local economies, improving collaboration, and working across landscapes.”

That all sounds good. But, of course, the proof will be in the final rule:

"The previous administration invented the decisionless forest plan so they would never have to be accountable to anyone," said Martin Hayden, the vice president for policy and legislation at Earthjustice (in a press release at prnewswire.com). "The Obama administration needs to restore agency accountability to the public by making a rule that requires plans that make actual decisions and contain enforceable conservation standards."
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