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Court stalls USFS projects

Posted: April 4, 2012 - 12:12am

Southeast mines could find current and future projects slowed as a recent Federal District Court decision has halted close to 600 projects in the nation’s forests.

The decision requires extra levels of public review before new or existing projects can proceed under a U.S. Forest Service categorical exclusion.

Categorical exclusions are a part of the National Environmental Protection Act. The exclusions allows an agency, based on its experience, to determine that certain categories of actions “do not result in significant impacts to the human environment,” according to Forest Service documents, “eliminating the need for unnecessary or lengthy documentation in an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.”

The court’s decision in Sequoia Forestkeeper v. Tidwell determined the Forest Service fails to comply with the Forest Service Appeals Reform Act, according to the court’s findings (bit.ly/Hetfsx).

“It will have an affect on some decisions where we have used a categorical exclusion,” Tongass Regional Forester Beth Pendleton said.

While most timber harvest and thinning projects in Southeast Alaska typically their meet NEPA demands with Environmental Assessments or the more thorough Environmental Impact Statements, Pendleton said, mining development is a different story.

As an example, the Forest Service used the exclusion during exploratory drilling associated with the Greens Creek Mine, Pendleton said.

The court’s decision doesn’t halt development, but it does slow down the process, Pendleton said.

“We can still use categorical exclusion,” Pendleton said. “We are required to give notice and give opportunity for public comment.”

If a significant number of comments come in or a member of the public appeals the project “we will have to allow for appeal process,” Pendleton said.

While the public could already object to categorically excluded projects, the new finding allows more time for objection, Pendleton said.

“It may have an affect on our ability to get certain decisions out,” she said. “We will continue to move forward as expeditiously as we can.”

The Forest Service has not appealed the decision.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, April 3, requesting “immediate steps” to prevent delay in the Forest Service’s approval of resource development in national forests, according to the senator’s press release.

“I want the Forest Service to assure that, while responding to the court’s decision, it also gets reasonable and responsible projects moving as quickly as possible,” said Begich. “Suddenly adding as much as 140 days to a permitting process will adversely affect a number of activities, particularly mining exploration.”

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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