Gunnison County protests USFS proposal to gut NEPA

Maintaining stance of opposition

By Katherine Nettles

Gunnison County filed its official response to the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed revisions to the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) procedures on August 23, as planned, following its August 13 discussion of the proposal at the county commissioners meeting. The county filed the 161-page document with the Forest Service in advance of the public input deadline of August 26.

The proposal aims to curtail public input processes in order to save time and money for the publicly funded agency, and the county’s comments argue that this would “stifle the primary way the public has contributed to the preservation and enhancement of their national forests … through sharing observations, knowledge, values and suggestions.”

The county document remained unchanged from its previous draft in substance, which was detailed previously by the Crested Butte News. But, according to county attorney David Baumgarten, he made changes to streamline the document “and make it tighter” by about 20 pages.

Gunnison County maintains that the Forest Service’s proposal ignores and undercuts federal mandates of public disclosure and accountability. “The agency assures the public that its analysis will continue to be of high quality, but those assurances are empty without public scrutiny,” states the letter, which Baumgarten drafted on behalf of the county commissioners and then signed upon their approval.

The letter contends that an estimated three quarters of NEPA’s decisions that are currently categorized for environmental assessment would lose their opportunity for public input due to the agency’s new “categorical exclusions” of that process. Using these categorical exclusions, “the public would lose the opportunity to comment on over 93 percent of all Forest Service decisions,” according to the county.

The county further contends that the proposal, if finalized, would encourage projects to be segmented out and then lack overall accountability in a larger scope. In such cases, the opportunity to identify “site-specific issues,” would be lost, as well as the opportunity to mitigate negative impacts or to raise concerns about the cumulative effects of such segmented projects.

There have been local, statewide and national comments and protests to the NEPA proposed revisions. Colorado was expected to file its state comments on August 26, and the comment period has now closed. The USFS has not yet announced when it will make its final decision.

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