A new rule allowing national forest management plans to escape formal environmental review won't apply to the Tongass National Forest's current update process, although it will affect future plans, officials say.
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"It doesn't affect us at all because when we started this process just about a year ago, we were given the option of choosing the 2005 planning rule or using the 1982 rule under which the (previous) 1997 forest plan was updated," said Tongass spokesman Dennis Neill.
"Obviously in the future it will (affect us)."
Other national forests will be affected, and conservationists complain that the change pushes the public farther away from decision-making about public land.
Tongass National Forest, which encompasses the bulk of Southeast Alaska, covers 26,250 square miles, an area larger than West Virginia.
Following an Aug. 5, 2005, 9th Circuit Court mandate, the Tongass has been updating its management plan, its blueprint for managing the forest. A draft is expected to be released in January, Neill said.
The court ruled that the 1997 plan had inadequately followed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The U.S. Supreme Court has now ruled that the process doesn't need to be followed.
National forests have been preparing 15-year management plans since 1976.
The Tongass was the first national forest to complete its plan, in 1979.
In 2005, the Bush administration made forest plans more broad-based, saying they would focus on how to improve forest health and restore forests burned by wildfire, rather than on individual projects.
Roughly nine of the 125 national forests and national grasslands embark on a new plan every year, and about nine finish one each year.
Plans typically take five to seven years and cost $5 million to $7 million, much of for the environmental impact statement.
Source: The Associated Press, Tongass National Forest
To learn more about the Tongass Land Management Plan, visit www.tongass-fpadjust.net.
This new rule takes effect today when it is published in the Federal Register. It is based on a new approach to forest planning.
The Forest Service concluded that writing the plans has no effect on the environment, and any projects envisioned by them will still have to go through a formal NEPA analysis, said Fred Norbury, associate deputy chief for the national forest system.
"Our thinking was if a plan doesn't cause anything to happen, and it doesn't prohibit anything from happening, it really doesn't have any environmental effects," Norbury said from Washington, D.C.
Neill said Tongass officials support the change.
"It is about simplifying and streamlining and really getting the project planning on the ground where the effects take place," he said.
Conservation groups complained that by applying what is called a "categorical exclusion" to forest plans, the Bush administration was continuing long-term efforts to undercut NEPA and limit the involvement of the public.
"NEPA is the primary law that enshrines democracy and openness in decisions," Marty Hayden, legislative director for Earthjustice, said from Washington, D.C.
"It is also the law that requires the government to take a hard look at the cumulative impacts of their actions on the forest and their plans for the forest going forward.
"The other thing that this ignores is that forest plans make real decisions. Forest plans zone the forests - what areas are open to or closed to logging, what areas are open to offroad vehicle use, what areas are open to back country recreation, and lots of other issues."
The Southeast Conference, a regional economic development organization, asked in late October that Tongass officials consider opening more areas to logging. Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole agreed to consider it, but chastised the organization for the tardy request.
"I think you would see a lot less public accountability," Juneau-based Southeast Conservation Council (SEACC) attorney Buck Lindekugal said of the rule change.
"I don't think you could count on the Forest Service to manage the land for the people. People wouldn't even know it is going to happen."
Norbury said the new provision actually increases public participation and provides more accurate information on cumulative impacts, though it would shorten the time to produce a plan to about three years.
NEPA has been a powerful law for conservation groups challenging Bush administration forest policy. A recent federal court ruling that overturned changes to rules banning most logging in inventoried roadless areas cited the lack of environmental impact statement as required by NEPA.
Hayden said a court challenge of the new rules was likely.
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Brittany Retherford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this story.