Public Comments 101
Getting Involved in the Public Comment Process:
Basic Information and Guidance
Agencies such as the USFS and BLM manage public lands, and the forests on those lands:
- National Forests managed by the US Forest Service (USFS or FS)
- Under the US Department of Agriculture
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
- Under the US Department of Interior
- Oregon federal lands: 53% of state
- BLM: 15.7 million acres
- Forest Service: 15.6 million acres
- Approx 28 million acres of forest in OR.
- 60% of Oregon forests on federal land
- Agencies tasked with being stewards of public lands. However, they are directed by law to balance multiple forest uses such as recreation, wildlife, ecological values, and economic interests.
- Heavy corporate influence in various levels of government regarding the management direction of public lands often leads to prioritization of resource extraction and other harmful practices.
Laws that Guide decision making
- NEPA: National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.
- Passed under Richard Nixon (!) in a political background of the public becoming outraged because of serious environmental disasters and degradation.
- Forest managers must take “hard look” at actions which may affect the environment
- Must consider public input and evaluate multiple options (“alternatives”)
NEPA & Public involvement
- The decision making process is designed to need public input, and the FS is legally mandated to involve the public.
- It only works when people get involved- it is one of our most democratic laws in the current legal system. There is a reason that industry and corporate interests keep trying to dismantle NEPA- it makes for a more informed and involved public, and it is a useful tool for stopping some projects.
- NEPA forms basis for public to participate in forest management
For the purposes of brevity and relevance to the work BMBP does, we will just refer to the FS as the relevant agency in most of this document. However, public forests and wildlands may be managed by a variety of federal agencies besides the FS such as the BLM, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Park Service, and others.
General NEPA public comment process
- Public agencies legally required to consider public opinion
- Agencies must announce project plans, and ensure that planning processes allow for public participation
- To stay up-to-date on FS plans, call the office of the National Forest(s) you are interested in and ask to receive updates/be on their mailing list for their “Schedule of Proposed Actions (SOPA)”
- The FS SOPAs are also posted online on that National Forest’s website.
- The FS is required to send out a scoping letter to stakeholders and interested parties, which describes a broad overview of the project they want to do. For example, if the FS is planning a timber sale, the scoping letter will include the stated “purpose and need” of the project, a rough description and map of the general area, and a general description of their planned project.
- After the scoping letter is published by the FS, the public has a 30 day period in which to write comments (i.e., their concerns, opinions, suggestions, etc) about the project.
Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
- The next step is for the FS to publish a EA or EIS. An EA is published for less controversial projects that are considered by the FS to be unlikely to affect the environment (or so they say!).
- The public typically has 30 days to comment on an EA, and 45 days for an EIS.
- “Significant” impacts are considered based on broad context
- Types of impacts the FS analyzed are direct (such as removal of trees), indirect (such as erosion due to removal of trees), and cumulative (the project, in combination with other actions and projects, add up to having a significant impact over time).
Pre decisional objection (until 2014 was called an “appeal”)
- BEFORE you know what the FS is going to decide, you have to object to the decision if you want reserve your right to litigate on the project, or at least negotiate with the FS about the project.
- This step used to be an “appeal”, and it came AFTER the FS decision was published.
- Negotiation/resolution- the pre-decisional objection can be followed by negotiations, i.e., possible changes to the project by the FS so that they can try to get you to not sue them.
Decision notice and final EA or EIS
- Usually includes a “finding of no significant impact” (FONSI) determination by the FS for projects with EAs. Will include a record of decision or “ROD” for projects with EISs. The FS will also republish EA or EIS, but with any changes they have made included.
- Must participate in each part of the process for legal standing
- Must include specific issues/objections early in comment process for that issue to have legal standing
Other laws and regulations guide policy, too, not just NEPA:
- Endangered Species Act (ESA)
- Clean Water Act (CWA)
- National Forest Management Act
- Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA)
- And many more…
- Also, Management Plans:
- NW Forest Plan
- Forest Management Plan
- Travel Plan
Laws and regulations work in concert. If laws are in conflict:
- Federal Laws trump state laws
- State laws trump local laws
- Other discrepancies, conflicts in laws, and fuzzy areas get worked out in court, and set “legal precedents”
Agencies are tasked with writing regulations to carry out laws.
Power of the Public:
- Volunteers for BMBP gather info for NEPA comments, public education, and litigation
- Many acres saved every year, increased public awareness, many harmful projects stopped
- GET INVOLVED!
- Volunteer with BMBP! Come out and field check to gather valuable field data to inform our comments! See our “volunteer” tab on this website.
- Write comments on timber sales, grazing allotments, and other harmful projects on NF lands in Eastern Oregon- get in touch with us if you want to write in-depth comments and want some additional guidance and advise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-715-6238
- Have an in-depth understanding of issues and the on-the-ground-reality
- Remember: our wildlands are finite!
The following information on the remainder of this document was compiled by the folks at Heartwood (https://www.heartwood.org/), and they were kind enough to share this with us. It’s a concise and helpful additional listing of laws, threats, and other relevant information. It is excerpted from their Heartwood Forest Watch Manual 2014 by Ernie Reed and Davis Mounger.
Chain of Command
- Secretary of Agriculture
- Chief of United States Forest Service
- Regional Supervisor
- Forest Supervisor
- District Ranger
Chain of Legality
- Legislation – Congress
- Court Rulings – the legal record of litigation and decisions
- Rules and Regulations – administrative detailing of legislation – Department of Agriculture – published in the Federal Register
Procedural Guidelines (non-binding but relevant) http://www.fs.fed.us/im/directives/dughtml/overview.html
- Forest Service Manual – FSM (The Forest Service Manual contains legal authorities, objectives, policies, responsibilities, instructions, and guidance needed on a continuing basis by Forest Service line officers and primary staff in more than one unit to plan and execute assigned programs and activities.) http://www.fs.fed.us/im/directives/dughtml/fsm.html
- Forest Service Handbook – FSH (The principal source of specialized guidance and instruction for carrying out the direction issued in the FSM.) http://www.fs.fed.us/im/directives/dughtml/fsh_1.html
- USFS Directives (Legal authorities, responsibilities, delegations, and general instructions and directions to plan and execute programs). http://www.fs.fed.us/im/directives/weekly_issuances
Legislation that establishes USFS policies, procedures and citizen input:
- 1891 – The Forest Reserve Act authorized the set-aside of public lands as forest reserves.
- 1897 – The Forest Management Act created the U.S. Forest Service as managers of the National Forests.
- 1897 – The Organic Act provided purpose for and stated the criteria for forest reserves: timber production, watershed protection and forest protection.
- 1905 – The Transfer Act moved the National Forests and the Forest Service from the U.S. Department of Interior to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- 1911 – The Weeks Actgave the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to purchase forested, cut-over, and denuded lands for the regulation of navigable streams and opened up the possibility of creating National Forests in the eastern United States.
- 1924 – The Clark-McNary Act established cooperative assistance programs to assist private forest owners in the management of their lands.
- 1928 – McSweeney-McNary Act officially recognized the research program of the U.S. Forest Service.
- 1944 – Sustained Yield Management Act authorized the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to establish cooperative sustained yield units encompassing both public and private lands.
- 1960 – Multiple Use – Sustained Yield Act provided a mandate for management priorities on the National Forests to include all resource uses.
- 1964 – The Wilderness Act created a system of wilderness reserves and specific management guidance for wilderness areas designated by Congress. Today there are 107.5 million acres of designated wilderness on federal lands and more than 35 million acres of that wilderness is on the National Forests.
- 1968 – The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
- 1969 – The National Environmental Policy Act established a U.S. national policy promoting the enhancement of the environment and also established the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). NEPA also established procedural requirements for all federal government agencies to prepare Environmental Assessments (EAs) and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs). EAs and EISs contain statements of the environmental effects of proposed federal agency actions. NEPA’s procedural requirements apply to all federal agencies in the executive branch.
- 1973 – The Endangered Species Act is to protect species and also “the ecosystems upon which they depend.” It encompasses plants and invertebrates as well as vertebrates.
- 1974 – The Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act authorizes long-range planning by the US Forest Service to ensure the future supply of forest resources while maintaining a quality environment. RPA requires that a renewable resource assessment and a Forest Service plan be prepared every ten and five years, respectively, to plan and prepare for the future of natural resources.
- 1976 – National Forest Management Act is the primary statute governing the administration of national forests and was an amendment to the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974, which called for the management of renewable resources on national forest lands. The 1976 legislation reorganized and expanded the 1974 Act, requiring the Secretary of Agriculture to assess forest lands, and develop and implement a resource management plan for each unit of the National Forest System.
Possible threats to National Forests may include
- vegetation management
- wildlife management
- biomass/energy burning
- oil and gas extraction
- road building
- off-road (ORV) and all-terrain (ATV) vehicles
- herbicides and pesticides
- prescribed burning
- wind power
- land swaps
- special-use permits
Land and Resource Management Plans
- 2012 Final New Planning Regulations http://www.fs.usda.gov/planningrule
- Environmental Impact Statement for the Final Plan
- Possible Appeal
- Possible Litigation
Congressionally and Administratively Designated Special Areas
- Wilderness Areas
- Wild and Scenic Rivers
- National Monuments (Adm)
- National Scenic Areas (Adm)
- Roadless Areas (Adm)
Forest Plans and Goals
- Management Areas
- Management Prescriptions
- Special Biological Areas
- Research Natural Areas
- Wilderness Study Areas