Mt. Peale

The Mt. Peale Inventoried Roadless Area is in the Manti-La Sal National Forest just outside of Moab. [Photo courtesy of Tim Peterson / Grand Canyon Trust]

Don’t mess with the National Environmental Policy Act’s public comment provisions.

A majority of Grand County Council members sent that message last week to the U.S. Forest Service, urging the agency’s top brass to back away from a proposal that could limit citizens’ ability to comment on more than 90 percent of administrative decisions.

Council members voted 4-1 on Tuesday, Aug. 6, to send the agency a letter that outlines their concerns about the proposed rule; Curtis Wells voted against the majority. Rory Paxman was absent, and Jaylyn Hawks — who participated via teleconference call earlier in the Aug. 6 meeting — was not present for the vote.

Grand County Council member Mary McGann said that county officials should have a stake in any decisions affecting Forest Service-administered lands in the La Sal Mountains watershed that recharges Moab’s aquifer.

“With that aquifer, we want to have some say in anything that happens on (Forest Service) lands,” McGann said.

The Forest Service says the proposed rule would give it the tools and flexibility it needs to manage land and address major challenges such as wildfires and overall forest health, while improving services to the public.

Among other things, the proposal would speed up reviews of forest restoration projects; road and trail management; administrative and recreation site management; and special-use authorizations through the revision or creation of “categorical exclusions” under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“Categorical exclusions” include activities that do not require extensive environmental reviews because federal agencies have determined that such activities don't have significant impacts on the environment.

On average, the Forest Service estimates that it take 687 days to complete a standard environmental assessment, while reviews of projects that fall under categorical exclusions take 206 days from start to finish. If it adopts the new categorical exclusions in the proposed rule, the agency says it could potentially complete its reviews between 30 and 480 days earlier on applicable projects.

For its part, however, the county council’s majority said in its letter that it values that rigorous NEPA process.

“The (NEPA) has played a vital role in effective communication between Grand County and the Forest Service for the last half-century, and in furthering our mutual exploration and understanding of the options and impacts for forest management,” the letter says.

A BIPARTISAN OR A PARTISAN ISSUE?

The Forest Service last updated its NEPA regulations in 2008. Since that time, the agency says that the strain on its staffers and resources has only grown, due to challenges related to extended droughts, insect infestations and diseases that have taken a toll on forest health.

“Revising the rule will improve forest conditions and make it simpler for people to use and enjoy their national forests and grasslands at lower cost to the taxpayer,” the agency said in an overview of its proposal. “The revised rule will also make it easier to maintain the roads, trails, campgrounds and other facilities people need to use and enjoy their public lands.”

By McGann’s estimates, the agency’s proposal would limit the public’s ability to comment on well over 90 percent of projects on Forest Service-administered lands just to please federal officials in Washington, D.C. 

“It’s coming from the top down,” McGann said. “It’s not being proposed by our local Forest Service (office) or even our state. It’s more of a national desire to remove a great deal of ability for public comment.”

McGann said that she sees voicing concerns about limitations on public comment as a bipartisan issue.

“Many of us would think, ‘Oh, we want to have public comment if they’re going to be logging or drilling,’ but you also want public comment when it comes to (issues) like grazing,” McGann said. “And with this law, they could just decide that there’s not going to be any more grazing on the Manti-La Sal (National Forest), without any public comment from our ranchers, from our people who use that service.”

Wells, however, countered that he believes the issue is a partisan one, and said it’s important for the agency to improve its efficiency, while reducing “red tape” when it’s unnecessary.

“And so, for those of you that have dealt with projects on federal lands, the NEPA process can take years, which, when time is money ... can severely hurt projects and also a lot of funding for studies,” Wells said. “I think to frame this as just anti-public comment isn’t accurate.”

Wells also suggested that the council’s majority might be guilty in other instances of the very thing it’s criticizing in its letter: He alluded to its decision last month not to allow public comment before an unrelated July 18 action to limit the development of new overnight rentals in the county’s unincorporated areas.

“As evidenced by the county council in last minute meetings, public comment isn’t accepted when efficiency is needed during an ‘emergency,’” Wells said in a follow-up email to local media outlets. “The same logic evidently doesn’t apply to the (U.S. Forest Service) when efficiency is needed.”

"IT'S REALLY A FAIRLY DISASTROUS PROPOSAL"

Grand Canyon Trust Utah Forests Program Director Mary O’Brien of Castle Valley told the county council that the Forest Service shouldn’t be in a rush to make decisions for efficiency’s sake.

“It’s really a fairly disastrous proposal,” O’Brien said. “Efficiency: It’s a false and dangerous efficiency. It’s where you make mistakes; it’s where you didn’t consider something that had consequences for Grand County or elsewhere.”

She said recent interactions with Fishlake National Forest employees led her to conclude that they were in the dark about the proposed NEPA changes.

“The Forest Service staff that were there did not know of this proposal, or did not know the extent or size of it, that has come down very quickly,” O’Brien said.

In the longer run, O’Brien cautioned those who support the plan that it could come back to bite them.

“I think right now, some people think this is a good idea they ... want to accelerate the extraction and use of the forests,” she said. “But over time, that could change, and they might not be happy with what would be proposed and undertaken under this process.”

The Forest Service is currently accepting public comments on its proposal until Monday, Aug. 26. Assuming that the Forest Service approves the plan, the agency expects to finalize it in the summer of 2020.