County objects to proposed NEPA changes

USFS seeks to limit public comment; Wells defends action

Lake Monticello in the Abajo Mountains near Monticello. The U.S. Forest Service seeks to limit public comment from National Environmental Policy Act guidelines in the vast majority of actions it takes. Opponents claim the change would remove the public from the process, while proponents believe it would add efficiencies to the NEPA process, particularly for grazers, oil and gas exploration and timber companies. The Grand County Council on Tuesday agreed in a 4-1 vote to send the Forest Service a letter in opposition. Photo by Doug McMurdo

Fearing that a proposed revision to the National Environmental Policy Act that seeks to limit public comment on Forest Service actions would lead to bad decisions in the future, Grand County Council Member Mary McGann successfully lobbied her colleagues to send a letter in opposition to the effort.

“The policy regarding public comment is coming from the top down,” said McGann at Tuesday’s meeting. She sees the issue as bipartisan, as did resident Mary O’Brien, who said up to 98 percent of Forest Service projects would be exempt from public comment.

O’Brien said the justification for the change was to improve efficiency, but she cautioned the current policy of the Forest Service is to increase timber operations, expand gas and oil exploration, and build more roads.

“It’s more efficient to cut out the public,” she said. “It’s a fairly disastrous decision. It’s really a bipartisan issue,” and people who think it’s a good idea might regret that opinion down the road. Aug. 12 is the deadline to comment, she noted.

Member Curtis Wells disagreed. “It think it’s a partisan issue,” he said. “I have an entirely different perspective.” Wells said the proposal would lead to cutting red tape in the NEPA process while still giving local Forest Service officials the ability to accept public comment.

“The NEPA process can take years,” he said. “Time is money.” He said it wasn’t right to frame the argument only as the public not being able to make comments.

Wells in an email added this: “As evidenced by the county council in last-minute meetings, public comment isn’t accepted when efficiency is needed during an ‘emergency.’ The same logic evidently doesn’t apply to the USFS when efficiency is needed.” Wells’ comment was a not-so-subtle jab at a council decision to ratify a temporary ban on overnight lodging that was made earlier in the meeting. See related story, Page A1.

Vice Chair Terry Morse made the motion to approve the letter, which passed 4-1 with Wells voting against. Members Jaylyn Hawks and Rory Paxman were not in attendance.

“The National Environmental Policy Act has played a vital role in effective communication between Grand County and the Forest Service for the last half-century, and in furthering our mutual exploration and understanding of the options and impacts for forest management. We value the current Forest Service NEPA regulations for their success in achieving twin aims: (1) ensuring that federal agencies ‘look before they leap’ by using the best available science to disclose the environmental impacts of, and alternatives to, their proposed actions; and (2) informing the public (including our county) of agency plans, and including the public in agency decision-making by seeking and responding to citizen (and county) input,” reads the letter.

Here is a list of activities the letter said would be excluded from NEPA’s public comment requirement:

  • Construction of up to five miles of Forest Service System roads, contrary to long-standing policy that the agency is no longer in the business of building permanent system roads. Expansion of the current intense use of the Moab District of the Manti-La Sal National Forest for motorized sightseeing and recreation has the potential to adversely impact watersheds and a diversity of non-motorized recreational opportunities.
  • Conversion of illegal off-road vehicle (ORV) routes to official Forest Service System roads or trails – contrary to decades of Forest Service management policy to make more ecologically and fiscally sustainable an already over-extended transportation system. The goal is to ensure that any ORV route designations “minimize” impacts to resources and conflicts with other recreational uses.
  • Approval of surface use plans associated with a new oil and/or gas area, including up to four drill sites, three miles of pipeline, and new road construction.
  • Mining exploration that may use vibroseis (thumper trucks), surface charges, or trenching.
  • Logging projects and associated road building on 4,200 acres (6.6 square miles), as long as the project includes one non-logging “restoration” action.

All of these types of actions are the kind that, in our experience, have the potential to significantly impact the watersheds and environment of Grand County, and thus benefit from the transparency, accountability, public involvement, consideration of less-damaging alternatives, and science-based decision-making that current Forest Service NEPA regulations require. For instance, in Grand County, extensive public involvement led by Moab District professional recreational staff, resulted in a trail use plan that met the approval of both motorized and non- motorized users of the La Sal Mountains.