Forest Service Officials Try To Explain Why It Takes The Agency So Long To Make Any Decision

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Abraham Lincoln liked to tell the story about a fellow with a good attitude who got tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail. Asked how he felt about the experience, the man stopped pulling feathers out of his hair long enough to say: “Well, if it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I’d have rather walked.”

A couple of young Forest Service planners probably know exactly how he felt, after their contentious appearance before more than 100 people at a Payson Tea Party meeting last week at Tiny’s Restaurant.

The pair spent two hours trying to explain why it takes the Forest Service six months to approve even routine requests and years to approve major projects, like Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline.

Mike Dechter, with the Coconino National Forest, and Genevivve Johnson, with the Tonto National Forest, fielded an array of questions about the Forest Service’s controversial attempt to protect plants and wildlife from an avalanche of off-road vehicles by limiting vehicles to existing roads.

“Getting the word out is our biggest challenge,” said Dechter. “I understand your frustration. There are a lot of people who don’t know what is going on.”

Gary Finch objected vigorously to a whole range of Forest Service policies, from creating more wilderness areas to closing roads in environmentally sensitive areas. He also objected strongly to rules that require people to raise questions early in the decision-making process or lose the right to appeal the eventual decision.

“A big percentage of the forest is scheduled to be turned into a wilderness area (by road closures). How stupid is that? What if I found out about your ‘process’ in the middle and want to object? What about my First Amendment rights?”

“You have your First Amendment rights — you just don’t have the right to appeal” if you raised no questions in the scoping process, replied Dechter.

Don Ascoli objected to the review process governed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), passed in 1969. The mandatory studies and windows for public comment about everything from pipelines to large family gatherings forces long delays in decision-making and spurs hundreds of appeals and lawsuits in each forest every year.

“Where does the NEPA process rank people as compared to animals and trees and fish? What part does common sense play in NEPA?” demanded Ascoli.

Dechter and Johnson fielded the questions with dogged good humor, although they sometimes shrugged in frustration.

One audience member finally came to their rescue, saying “if you feel like the visiting team at homecoming, I can understand. You’re not being treated like a guest and that’s too bad.”

The comment seemed to temper the tenor of the subsequent questions.

The first in a two-part series of encounters pitting forest service bureaucrats against Tea Party indignation focused on the legally detailed process the Forest Service goes through every time it undertakes a project.

Most decisions require a quick study to be sure that the gate, road, tree-thinning project or 50-person family reunion won’t do some damage to fragile habitats, archeological sites or vulnerable wildlife. But even such a simple, uncontested finding can take six months, given the requirement to have several public comment periods, officials said.

Many decisions involve an environmental assessment, which requires more careful study focused on certain key issues and longer public comment periods. If people don’t get involved at the public comment stage, they can’t file a time-consuming appeal of the decision at the end of the process. An environmental assessment takes about 18 months, the Forest Service officials said. That’s the process the Forest Service used when Payson asked for permission to build a $33-million water pipeline across about 13 miles of Forest Service land, including three crossings of the East Verde River.

A few decisions require a full-fledged Environmental Impact Report, usually depending on the size of the project or impacts on critical habitats or endangered wildlife. It often takes about three years to finish an environmental impact statement, said Dechter.

“Oftentimes the project has been going on so long that it’s just hard for people to pay attention,” said Dechter.

He said 10 to 50 percent of the initial decisions are appealed. Most appeals are filed by a relative handful of people who follow the process, he said.

He said that in the Coconino and Tonto forests, the Forest Service wins about 40 percent of the appeals outright. In another 30 percent of cases, the Forest Service wins the appeal, but only after making some changes in the original plan. Even when the Forest Service loses the early rounds of the appeal, officials can usually work out modifications that prompt the protesters to drop their appeal.

The Forest Service also regularly faces lawsuits seeking to reverse its decisions. For instance, Native American groups sued to reverse a decision to let a ski resort use treated wastewater to make snow on the slopes of Mount Humphrey, which is sacred to the Havasupi, Hopi and Navajo.

Dechter said the Forest Service wins about 75 percent of the lawsuits and generally agrees to some sort of settlement in the rest of those cases.

“Every federal agency has to go through the NEPA process, but the Forest Service gets sued more than any other agency. I really don’t know why that is,” said Dechter.

“Maybe it’s because you own more of the country than anyone else,” interjected one audience member.

One member of the audience asked whether the Forest Service could ignore all the time-consuming NEPA restrictions in an emergency.

“There are provisions for emergencies: For wildfires, we don’t have to do NEPA,” said Dechter.

The exception only applies to the actual emergency. For instance, when a wildfire started on the outskirts of Flagstaff, the Forest Service didn’t have to go by NEPA to fight the fire, spread straw on the slopes to prevent erosion, plant some trees in denuded areas and cope with the floods that followed. However, those floods ripped out a major water line supplying Flagstaff. So now the Forest Service does have to go through the NEPA process before allowing Flagstaff to repair that pipeline or the road that provides access.

Shirley Dye, who serves on Payson’s Traffic Advisory Board, said federal rules and studies often inflict delays and heavy costs without much benefit.

As an example, she cited Payson’s effort to use state gas tax funds to widen and rebuild several roads in town. Payson was nearly ready to start construction with state gas tax funds when the recession upended the process. Now, the town hopes to use federal funds. However, that means going through the NEPA process, which will add $300,000 to the cost of the project without really bringing any benefits.

Dechter said the NEPA process has many flaws, but it also gives the public a chance to review plans and make suggestions. The restrictions do cost time and money, but also help reconcile conflicting priorities and demands and avoid unintended damage to the environment.

“Now, I’m not here to defend NEPA,” said Dechter. “But NEPA is the glue that holds these other laws together. And like other kinds of glue, it makes a lot of mess.”

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