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Un-common ground: a controvery over the U.S. Forest Service's appeals process is eroding carefully wrought partnerships. (Perspectives).

When the 2002 fire season erupted with a 138,000-acre blaze in the Denver suburbs, it sparked a firestorm of political accusations aimed at the U.S. Forest Service's appeals process. As the season advanced across the country and wildfires blackened 7 million acres--nearly twice the 10-year average--politicians minced no words in blaming environmentalists for filing legal challenges they said delayed the thinning needed to protect forests from catastrophic fire.

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado cited "a hailstorm of lawsuits and appeals from environmentalists who purport to protect our forests." Arizona Rep. Jeff Fluke condemned "socalled environmentalists who want nothing more than to stop all forest thinning." Montana Governor Judy Martz was succinct: "I want to do away with appeals, period."

"We're being scapegoated for a problem that's been around for a very long time," Horning says.

Environmentalists targeted by these accusations responded with equal venom, calling it ludicrous to blame their organizations for wildfires. The underlying cause of fires is past forest management, not appeals, says John Horning, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians. He and other environmental leaders hold politicians responsible for using public fear of fire to mount a campaign against anyone who raises questions about logging on national forests.

How an administrative process in place for more than three decades has become the object of such controversy is a saga of politics and shifting public values. As Americans have become increasingly concerned about nontimber forest resources--clean water and wildlife habitat, recreation and solitude--they have come in conflict with government officials, the timber industry, and other forest users increasingly alarmed over the decline in timber harvests. These traditional groups believe the system designed to enhance public involvement in national forest management is being used to block logging, especially fuels reduction and forest restoration projects. Four consecutive years of devastating wildfires have heightened their anxiety and strengthened their political hand.

The controversy threatens to erode the common ground so painstakingly won by community groups dedicated to working with agencies, industry officials, and environmental organizations. As the argument over the appeals process escalates, community activists are watching a decade of coalition-building slip away in waves of distrust and ill will.

"What we need are incentives to collaborate, but everybody's retreating into the corners," says Maia Enzer, program director for Sustainable Northwest, a Portland, Oregon, nonprofit that builds community partnerships.

Virtually everyone involved in public land management would like to see some modification in the way Forest Service appeals are administered, but there is little agreement about what to change. An array of regulations, starting with the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), opens federal agency decisions to extensive public review. Legislation approved in 1993 specifically requires the Forest Service to accept appeals within a 45-day period following adoption of a project.

The process has often served as an effective tool for drawing attention to on-the-ground resources Forest Service officials overlooked. Michael Anderson, a senior resource analyst with the Wilderness Society, remembers his initial exposure in the early 1980s. The Umpqua National Forest was proposing a timber sale in a roadless area in western Oregon's Boulder Creek watershed. Anderson appealed, using the procedure for the first time.

"Lo and behold, we got a letter from the chief of the Forest Service saying, 'We agree.' Without that appeal, we would have lost a significant wilderness area," Anderson says.

In 2000, the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project appealed a project on the Francis Marion National Forest in coastal South Carolina that was designed to convert shortleaf pine to native longleaf. The public lands protection group objected to the use of herbicides and their effect on the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federal endangered species. The Forest Service responded by replacing the herbicides with mechanical thinning.

"We had no problem with that," says Marty Bergofen, the organization's campaign coordinator.

When Forest Service officials accept an appeal, they generally send the entire project back to the planners. A timber sale to salvage trees damaged by the 2000 Storrie Fire in northeastern California was modified substantially after the Santa Fe-based Forest Conservation Council raised scientific questions about whether the trees were actually dying. Lassen Forest officials scaled the logging hack from 3,500 acres to 1,126.

Community activists welcome appeals as a way to improve forest management by pointing out mistakes or information that has been overlooked. But they are often frustrated with last-minute actions by groups that have not been involved in developing a project with agency officials, local environmentalists, and loggers.

The Flathead Forestry Project and the Swan Ecosystem Center worked with the Montana Wilderness Alliance, Montana Audubon, and others on a project to remove brush and small trees on a 30-acre old-growth stand in Condon, Montana. They held numerous public meetings in 1995 to involve as many people as possible. After Flathead Forest officials approved it, two local environmental groups appealed the project. The agency decided to proceed, rejecting the appeal.

What's discouraging is the eleventh-hour intervention by people who could have participated in the planning but didn't, says Carol Daly, a member of the Flathead Forestry Project and chair of the Communities Committee of the Seventh American Forest Congress. It puts a damper on collaboration. "We can work and work and work, then someone who refuses to get involved comes along and delays it," she says.

Many timber industry officials believe the appeals process has been corrupted by a vocal minority of environmental extremists who oppose any national forest management. Some appeals are such obvious boilerplates that the groups filing them have not even bothered to change the forest name in the body of the text. These critics view appeals as little more than monkey wrenches thrown at the Forest Service to halt all logging.

"These groups don't think a tree should be cut down-ever. If they have to go to court, chain themselves to trees, they'll do it," says Michael Klein, a spokesman for the American Forest & Paper Association, an organization representing the wood products industry.

Even Forest Service officials are critical of their own appeals system. Chief Dale Bosworth complains of "an awful lot of process" that costs the agency time and money and takes employees away from fieldwork. A 2002 Forest Service report concluded that appeals can greatly delay a project, sometimes with disastrous results.

Bosworth has joined politicians, including President Bush, in calling for appeals reforms. "I don't need my people sitting in windowless rooms doing paperwork. I need them out on the ground, getting the job done," he says.

AMENDING THE PROCESS

Armed with complaints from the Forest Service itself, politicians hacked by the Bush administration are proposing major modifications to appeals regulations. One rules change would exempt fuels reduction, post-fire rehabilitation, and restoration projects from administrative appeals. Once a project was ready for implementation, litigation would be the only way to voice opposition. Legislation to facilitate fuels-reduction thniber sales, sponsored by Reps. Scott McInnis of Colorado and Greg Walden of Oregon, would replace mandatory appeals regulations imposed in 1993. The new rules would ellmmate consideration of project alternatives and the right to appeal them. They would also require lawsuits to be filed within 45 days and courts to adjudicate them within 100 days.

Other administrative proposals would remove the appeals process from logging on up to 1,000 acres of insect-infested lands and from forest planning regulations, leaving scoping and litigation as the only means of public involvement.

The combined changes are aimed particularly at timber sales after wildfires or in stands threatened by insects, where timing is critical to the success of the project. Limiting appeals will encourage early public participation when the opportunities for substantive input are greatest, says Gail Kimbell, a Forest Service associate deputy chief. "This is part of a continuing effort to encourage the public to be involved."

Environmentalists disagree. They view the rule changes as a threat to democracy and First Amendment rights-part of a concerted effort to eliminate citizens' opportunities to participate in government decisions. "It's ridiculous. It's illegal. Congress has said it's unAmerican to limit public participation," says Jim Bensman, forest watch coordinator in Illinois for Heartwood, an association of groups dedicated to Midwest forest health.

"Democracy may be ugly at times-slow and inefficient," says Horning, the Forest Guardian executive. "But it gives people the opportunity to speak their voice. This administration finds that fundamental principle annoying."

USFS DATA CHALLENGED

The controversy over amending the appeals process has been exacerbated by research conducted by a team at Northern Arizona University's Ecological Restoration Institute. Their analysis of the impacts and outcomes of Forest Service appeals reaches conclusions more troubling than all the name-calling. The agency, NAU found, has no consistent system for tracking and analyzing projects, and uses confusing methods for reporting on various forest projects.

Given the level of accusations and the regulatory changes proposed, these results astonished the researchers. "One would assume the Forest Service would have complete records on appeals and litigation. They don't," says Jacqueline Vaughn, associate professor of political science.

The data the research team compiled contradicts the information, most of it produced by the Forest Service, that politicians used as a basis for their accusations and demands for change. The number of appeals processed on Forest Service projects, for example, has not been increasing, as Forest Service reports claim. 1998 saw the highest number of appeals decided between 1997 and 2002; since then the total has declined, the NAU researchers say.

Their data also challenges the widespread claim that appeals cause delays, an argument used to explain the increase in catastrophic wildfires and justify changes in the appeals process. Forest Service officials have offered no data to indicate how long an appeal takes to process, says Vaughn.

Almost as surprising is NAU data documenting that the agency dismissed 75 percent of the appeals it processed in the last five years. Forest Service officials upheld 25 percent of the challenges. If there have been delays, most would have occurred when officials found an appeal valid, causing them to review and revise the project, says Hanna Cortner, research professor and associate director of Arizona's Ecological Restoration Institute.

The most unexpected result of the NAU research is that individuals, not environmental groups, are the top appellants. Private citizens filed nearly 33 percent of the 3,635 appeals processed from 1997 through September 2002. This shows that there are significant public interests. and not all of them environmental, that will likely be affected by proposals to change the current appeals process.

The NAU research has met with a predictable mixed reaction. Kimbell, the Forest Service deputy chief, says the data seems "really odd. It doesn't match anything I'm familiar with."

The number of individuals filing appeals demonstrates real grassroots interest in national forest management, says Horning of Forest Guardians, which was second on NAU's list of appellants. But Michael Mortimer, a professor of forest policy and law at Virginia Tech, questions the researchers' conclusion that individuals filed the most appeals. It is based on return addresses and does not consider whether the filers are affiliated with an environmental organization, he says.

Community leaders involved in national forest projects seldom file appeals, but they accept them as a fact of life--"like fleas," says Daly, the Montana coalition member. They fear the proposals to limit administrative appeals will increase the lawsuits filed against the Forest Service, causing significantly longer delays in getting work done in the woods.

They're right to be concerned, says Jeff Juel, ecosystem defense director for the Missoula-based Ecology Center, an environmental group placing third on NAU's list of appellants. The appeals process is designed to ensure the science is sound on proposed projects. Without it, environmentalists will be forced to go straight to court.

"The politicians are shooting themselves in the foot. Litigation would absolutely show the defects of a project and take even more time," says Juel.

Taking forest projects to court gives judges the responsibility of deciding how to proceed based on legal technicalities, not ecosystem realities. Community practitioners have been working for a decade to avoid relegating forest policy to courtrooms. And some judges are getting tired of it. U.S. District Judge Don Molloy says his Missoula courtroom sees near-weekly appearances by loggers, environmentalists, and federal land managers, forcing him to make decisions that shouldn't be made by judges.

The controversy over appeals has hampered meaningful discussion of forest management and its effects on the environment, the timber industry, and communities. By pushing people to the extremes, the arguments are making it difficult for people to come to the table and discuss what's working and what's not. Worse yet, the furor may encourage direct action protests.

"People are very passionate about these issues," says Enzer, the Sustainable Northwest program director. "If you kick them out of the courts, they're just going to end up in the trees."

Few people would dispute that the Forest Service appeals system could use some modification, but those changes should be based on reliable information documenting how legal challenges affect the agency's on-the-ground operations. Less hype and more data would build trust, allowing agency and timber industry officials to work with community leaders, environmentalists. and the public to develop a process that encourages collaboration and citizen involvement. And that would ultimately contribute to the fundamental goal they all share: restoring national forests to health.

Jane Braxton Little covers environmental issues from her home in Greenville, California.
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Author:Little, Jane Braxton
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
Words:2233
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