Forest Service to modify appeals process
New guidelines expected to be unveiled later this week would require anyone interested in challenging agency actions to fully take part in the public review process and file formal objections before agency administrators make final policy decisions, according to a story published Monday in the Lewiston Tribune.
The modified objection procedure is designed to make agency officials aware of potential problems earlier.
"The advantage we hope to gain is we will have more active involvement up front and more information for decision-makers to arrive at a more agreeable decision rather than the old way where we make a decision and then people appeal," said Phil Sammon, a Forest Service spokesman at Missoula, Mont.
Sammon compared the process to the agency's recent emphasis on collaboration with citizen groups to develop strategy in timber harvests, trail use and other policy decisions. That process relies on diverse interests working together and agreeing on a direction before projects are formalized.
But critics worry the changes will force them to predict the future. Instead of filing an appeal based on a specific decision, they will have to anticipate a wide range of possible final decisions the agency might make.
"Whether you are a timber industry advocate or a strict preservationist, you are going to need to break out your crystal ball to determine what the Forest Service is going to do before they do it," said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League.
That has the possibility of spawning more objections and taking more time than the current system, said Gary Macfarlane of the Moscow-based Friends of the Clearwater.
"Right now appeals are done after a decision is made so both parties know what the decision is; objections and concerns can be more pointed, more boiled down," he said. "It's going to force people who object to do the kitchen-sink model, to throw as many concerns out there as possible."
Those who do not participate in the public involvement and objection process won't have standing to file lawsuits, raising the stakes and incentive for filing a broad range of objections, environmentalists say.
The change was dictated by a rider in last year's Consolidated Appropriations Act and based on the objection process outlined by the Health Forest Restoration Act of 2003. But that law covers only some forest thinning projects related to efforts to reduce fire danger.
In July, the agency issued a draft of its new rule. It expects to unveil a final rule Tuesday and publish it the Federal Register on Wednesday.
For Tom Partin, executive director of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Ore., the new process is welcome and long overdue. He believes the new process will compel people who oppose things like timber sales to come forward with their objections rather than holding back and saving rhetorical ammo for court.
"They have to put their dislikes in up front and try to work it out in the resolution process," he said.
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