Getting Shut Out: The Rise and Fall of Citizen Rights on National Forests
Although not specifically addressed in the new NEPA rules, t
There has been bipartisan support for grassroots citizen involvement in environmental issues and federal lands management for a long time: the Wilderness Act in the Johnson administration; NEPA, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Acts of the Nixon era; the 1982 National Forest planning regulations under Reagan.
Congress clarified NEPA’s role in the workings of the Forest Service and gave the public a stronger role to play through the 1970’s and 1980’s. However, recent years have seen a steady rollback of citizen rights and agency accountability. This timeline summarizes this arc.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970
NEPA grew out of the increased public appreciation and concern for the environment that developed during the 1960s, amid increased industrialization, urban and suburban growth, and pollution across the United States. The Wilderness Act of 1964, the Clean Air Act of 1970, and the Clean Water Act of 1972 were watershed legislation that has been a model for conservation, government accountability, and enshrining a public right to redress that many other nations look to.
NEPA requires that federal agencies give a thorough Environmental Analysis (EA) or more wide-ranging Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to determine if an action performed by one of its agencies may have significant environmental consequences.
1976 The National Forest Management Act (NFMA)
Codified the Forest Service’s role as an environmental steward. Recognized the need for Long Range Management Plans that would give a long-term view of forests as ecological communities, helping bringing the worst excesses of industrial timber cutting under control, and developing an interdisciplinary approach to management. Provided a clear public role in developing these plans.
1982 National Forest Planning Rule
The “high water mark” of public participation rights on National Forests. Provided a “scoping phase” for the public to comment during early phases of the development of a project or a management plan. Required a comprehensive EA or EIS. Required a 30 day comment period after the release of the analysis, and a crucial right to appeal a decision by a forest to the regional officer. This allowed the public to have the time, information, and means to carefully analyze and consider complex agency decisions. During this period, grassroots environmental groups flourished, with an increasingly educated and sophisticated public being able to engage the agency in thoughtful discussion. Many foresters acknowledge that it was during this era that the agency improved greatly in professionalism and its ability to engage the public.
Public Rights Begin to Erode-the 2000 Planning Rule
The Clinton and Bush administrations began the rollback of agency accountability in major rule changes that were repeatedly challenged and went through successive drafts through the decade. Besides reducing its commitment to maintaining healthy populations of sensitive species, the rule called for less transparency in sharing monitoring of the environmental effects of its actions with the public, and a prevision that would allow for excluding public input on some revisions to forest plans.
- Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003
- Farm Bills
The 2014 Farm Bill further expanded HFRA’s categorical exclusions, with a provision that a larger project could have a CE if it had been developed by a collaborative group. The bill also weakened safeguards for protecting endangered species and old growth forest stands.
The 2012 National Forest Planning Regulations
Ended the ability of citizens to appeal agency decisions to the regional forester. Replaced it with a “Pre-Decisional Objection” on individual projects.
The 2019 Proposed NEPA Rule
In the midst of a 60-day comment period, the rule would greatly reduce accountability by the Forest Service and further restrict public input. Larger scale projects would be Categorically Excluded from public participation or the need for a comprehensive EA. The rule also would expand the list of “extraordinary circumstances” that exempt the agency from standard NEPA processes.