Monday, November 18, 2019

County attacks proposal that limits NEPA public comment

“The public would lose its right to respond to nearly 93 percent of Forest Service changes”

By Kristy Acuff

Gunnison County officials have drafted a scathing 188-page comment on proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as it applies to management of the United States Forest Service.

The proposed change to NEPA would allow Forest Service officials to conduct policy changes to large tracts of land—up to 4,200 acres—without consulting the public or conducting scientific environmental assessments or impacts. Through a change in the definition of what is termed a categorical exclusion (CE), the proposed policy would result in “broad and deep changes to the public’s legal right to submit comments to Forest Service,” according to county attorney David Baumgarten who drafted the county’s response.

“This would essentially allow Forest Service officials to make decisions at their desks covering vast tracts of public lands,” Baumgarten told the county commissioners at the August 13 Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting. “I would like your permission to share this draft document with other potential stakeholders around the state, to give them the opportunity to use our comments as a template to draft their own,” Baumgarten explained.

The draft comment explains first that federal lands comprise 80 percent of land in Gunnison County, making the county an essential stakeholder for all changes to federal land policy including the proposed change to NEPA. The document goes on to respectfully suggest that the agency abandon this proposed change because it “eliminates both legally required and beneficial public input, will violate the law and will undermine agency decisions.”

In its original language, NEPA states, “Each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.” But, according to Baumgarten’s draft, the proposed change would “stifle the primary way the public has contributed to the preservation and enhancement of their national forests,” because more Forest Service land decisions would fall under “categorical exclusion,” meaning they are exempt from public or scientific input and review.

According to the proposed changes outlined in the county’s draft comment, “New categorical exclusions would likely be used for up to three-quarters of the decisions currently authorized with an environmental assessment (EA). Of [the Forest Service’s] 277 annual decisions completed with an EA, up to 210 would be made with CEs. Projects authorized under CEs would no longer be ‘scoped’ and the public would therefore lose all advance notice and comment requirements.”

Under the proposed changes, “The public would lose the opportunity to comment on over 93 percent of all Forest Service decisions. For all these decisions, the public would lose their only opportunity to raise concerns… or otherwise offer suggestions on how to limit or mitigate harms at the site-specific level,” states the county’s comment.

“Applied across the national forest system over time, these changes together would all but eliminate public participation, eliminate the requirement for science-based analysis of impacts and the consideration of alternatives for hundreds of decisions each year,” the comment explains.

After presenting the case to share the county’s comments with other potential stakeholders, Baumgarten enlisted the approval of the commissioners, who agreed to let him distribute the document in draft form.

The deadline for any party to submit comments to the United States Forest Service—the agency proposing the changes to NEPA—is August 26, 2019.

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