Forest Service withdraws controversial CE Decision Memo

Two months ago we had a discussion about the appropriate, or inappropriate, use of a Categorical Exclusion (CE) relating to the Lewis and Clark National Forest’s “Little Belt Mountain Hazard Tree Removal Project” in central Montana.  This followed other debates on this blog about the use of CE’s (here and here).

According to the Alliance for Wild Rockies, the use of a CE for this project – which they contend would result in logging over 17,000 acres of national forest lands, including logging in Inventoried Roadless Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Research Natural Areas, and old-growth forests – was inappropriate, so they sued.

On Thursday, Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor, William Avey, sent out this letter to interested parties, letting the public know he was withdrawing the CE Decision Memo and intending “to prepare an environmental assessment to provide evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an environmental impact statement or a finding of no significant impact for the Little Belt Mountains Hazard Tree Removal Project.”

11 Comments

  1. Matthew…
    It isn’t really clear to me what writing an EA will help with, from this discussion.
    I wonder how much extra it will cost and what management code will pay for it, and what the opportunity costs are of the additional analysis (what road maintenance will not get done, for example).

    I remember Tony Erba, I think, once saying something along the lines of “you can’t analyze your way out of a problem that is fundamentally a disagreement”.

    To me it would seem more mutually profitable to discuss what folks didn’t like about the project and have an open discussion about that. Looking forward to an objection process for that reason…

  2. Sharon, to some extent I agree with you that “it would seem more mutually profitable to discuss what folks didn’t like about the project and have an open discussion about that.”

    I would also assume that both representatives of Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Lewis and Clark National Forest have, in fact, had these types of open discussions about this, and other projects. Perhaps it would have been more cost effective and quicker for the USFS to simply prepare a rather straight-forward EA right from the beginning.

    • Matthew, I’m afraid that same logic would lead to “let’s just do an EIS for projects where we might go to court”. Doing more analysis when people don’t like the project doesn’t solve anything, it just bolsters your case when you go to court.

  3. Well Sharon, I’m gonna guess an EA is gonna cost around $200,000. I’m gonna concede that this is the only “road hazard” project I can think of that was gonna use a CE, all the rest, in Colorado and Montana were EA’s. But it does drive home the point that the USFS can’t tell the public how much these EA’s and EIS’s cost. My company keeps track of our clients money with Job numbers, tasks, sub tasks, and codes. I guess that’s what happens when you’re spending other peoples’ money. Oh, that’s right, the USFS is spending other peoples money. I wouldn’t want to burden the USFS employees with filling out a time card for five minutes at the end of every day. Since it is the most litigious, at least the Northern Region should be required to do so so the public can have an accounting of how much enviro litigation costs them. It should be posted on the individual forest’s website. All “projects” on the website should include past “lesser” NEPA analysis within the project area that were “upgraded” due to litigation. We all know the common USFS response to EA litigation is to upgrade it to an EIS. “Supplementary” analysis must also be kept track of. Some great research for a bright young grad student would be to analyz how many projects in Montana have been upgraded. But the missing link is how much these upgrades cost, especially as a percentage of total timber sale budget(also-how come individual forest budgets are next to impossible to find?). Look, we all know the litigation is all about soaking up budget dollars so less timber can be harvested. If the USFS can throw Garrity a couple hundred thousand dollars, than certainly it can spend some on the rest of the public. You can argue whether it’s about following the law, but certainly who could be against transparency? Of course, it would be much more difficult to account for dispensing with an EA all together because of litigation. One of your Rangers told me that because of litigation, they just go right to an EIS.
    On a related note, the Northern Region should post on their website how many million board feet are tied up in litigation at any one time. The criteria for this could be thornier. Should it include EA’s that were withdrawn for EIS preparation…or the problem when Molloy “finds for the defendent” and projects are sold and logged pending appeal. Any project that Molloy has “found for the plaintiff” would obviously be included here.
    I bring this up because the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 USFS “cut and sold” report has just came out. The nine forests in Montana have sold the least amount of timber since 2007, and 40% less than 2009. When one looks back 10 years, one can see an inverse curve between “timber sold” in Montana and “money raised” by the Alliance of Wild Rockies. In 2007, when only 109 Million board foot was sold (MMBF), the AWR raised $255,000. The Wildwest Institute raised $136,000. There was much litigation then wasn’t there. In 2009, the AWR budget dropped to $83,000 (barely enough to cover Garrity’s salary) and the WWI to $33,000. In 2010, because of a “gift” from Carole King, the AWR budget bounced up to $380,000. Now here’s some research for you. Graph this one out. How many lawsuits were filed in the last few years, or more importantly, how many MMBF is currently litigated. How much of the 40% decline in volume is attributed to litigation? Why can’t the USFS tell us that? They know, and they could, but why wait for the Missoulian to get around to asking them. You can argue that it’s all about following the law, but who could be opposed to the public’s right to know. Let’s stop the dance here, we all know the litigation is all about soaking up person hours so less timber can be cut with the available budget, and with holding timber supplies in the hope some more mills will close. A tactic that has worked quite well in the past 30 years.
    Here’s a few more fun “stat’s” from the cut and sold. Out of the 122 MMBF “sold” 25% was personal use firewood. Of the “commercial” timber, only 38%(47MMBF) of the 122 was “sawtimber” and 35%(43MMBF) “non-sawtimber,” in other words, trees less than 9″ DBH(there’s your hazard road timber sales). The mills can cut down to a 7″ DBH. In 2007, 70% was “sawtimber”. That means that in 2007 75 MMBF was sawtimber while in 2012 only 47MMBF was.
    –Meanwhile,the Ouachita in Arkansas sold 90MMBF of which 65MMBF was sawtimber. One forest in the east sold more sawtimber than all nine in Montana.
    –The three NF’s in Michigan sold 150 MMBF. Three million acres in Michagan sold more than 20 some million in Montana. Guess there ain’t much litigation in Michigan.
    —The White Mountain NF in New Hampshire, barely 100 miles from Boston, sold as much timber as the Bitteroot in Montana.
    —Colorado sold 105 MMBF, almost as much as Montana, when it has one mill just out of bankruptcy and another opening soon, while Montana has what, 7 mills of comparable size.
    —The two one million acre forests in Minnesota sold 105 MMBF.
    Keep in mind, that the above forests sell very little “personal use firewood”.
    The whole Northern Region sold 206 MMBF. If the Obama administration wants to sell 350 MMBF as Tidwell talked of, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

    • Derek: I agree with you that we need full disclosure and transparency with economic issues regarding USFS (and BLM) budgets and costs — in addition to the same approach to science and policy issues that drive these numbers.

      A few years ago I coauthored a paper that took this same approach toward the management of wildfires on public lands. It has been generally well received when distributed since that time, but there doesn’t seem to be even the slightest effort in seriously considering an actual adoption of these suggestions.

      From the sound of things, we may be turning a corner in these regards and the Internet may become the tool of choice for tracking (and discussing) federal resource management actions.

  4. Here ya go Sharon.

    http://www.fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/products/sold-harvest/cut-sold.shtml

    Derek has hit a grand slam as far as I’m concerned with his comment.

    I don’t think the “mutually beneficial discussions” as referenced above will make a bit of difference if you’re fundamentally opposed (admittedly by these orgs) to any extractive uses of NFS lands. Once again why I question their true motives….”save the environment” or stay in business and keep the $upport coming.

    I doubt the difference between a CE, EA or EIS would make any difference to these folks. The appeals and litigation will continue. “They” are very calculated in their opposition. On the flip side, the Agency doesn’t seem very calculated, indeed rather clumsy at times with the way it tries to “shoehorn” all their projects into whatever politically appetizing hopper (i.e. “restoration”) is the flavor de jour. Too bad responsible forest management is a concept that the FS can’t embrace anymore.

    Regardless…it is interesting to note that the FS (cumulatively) only harvests 0.1% of their ownership….and fights over much of it, particularly here in the Northern Rockies. Wow.

    • Hello:

      Thanks for the link JZ.

      However, I’d like to point out that when one goes to the link, and clicks on the information (which is supposedly to be for entire cut and sold volume of timber from each Region of the Forest Service for the entire FY 2012) what one actually gets is just the information for the cut and sold volume for one specific national forest within each region.

      Click on the link yourself and look:

      http://www.fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/products/sold-harvest/cut-sold.shtml

      For example, when you click on the “NEW” Quarters 1-4 (Oct 2011 to Sept 2012) information for Region One what you get is a spreadsheet showing the volume cut and sold for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

      When you click on Region 2 you get only the volume cut and sold for the Bighorn National Forest. Region 3, it’s only the Apache/Sitgreaves numbers. The same is true with the other Forest Service Regions. None of these appear to be Region-wide numbers, but rather Forest-specific numbers.

      The same thing is true when you click on the link and look at FY 2011 numbers. Again, these claim to be Region-wide numbers, but instead they are just Forest-specific numbers.

      However, once you go back to FY 2010 numbers, the Region-wide numbers do, in fact, appear to be Region-wide numbers. For example, click on the Region One numbers for FY 2010 and you’ll notice it no longer says, “Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest” and the total sold and cut volume for Region One in FY 2010 is, in fact, Region wide numbers:

      • FY 2010 Region One sold 253.4 MMBF, cut 188.7 MMBF.

      • FY 2009 Region One sold 292.9 MMBF, cut 186.0 MMBF.

      • FY 2008 Region One sold 229.2 MMBF, cut 167.4 MMBF.

      Maybe JZ or Derek have other figures and spreadsheets they are looking at? If so, could you please share them with the group so that we’re sure we’re all talking about the same stuff here?

      As is, I don’t see how it’s possible for anyone to figure out how much each Forest Service Region of the country cut and sold during FY 2012 by looking at this link, as the link only shows Forest-specific information, not Region-wide information (at least for FY 2012 and FY 2011).

      http://www.fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/products/sold-harvest/cut-sold.shtml

      Thanks.

      • Matthew, I went there and scrolled down and found more stuff, like the rest of the forests.. I’ve made that mistake before so I now try to remember to look at number of pages and make sure I scroll through them all.

        Also, I think if your computer is slow as mine is sometimes you can’t see all the pages right away.

        If you all have ideas about a more user-friendly format, you could send them to the Forest Management folks in DC.. looks like they are looking for input. This is certainly part of the People’s Database!

        http://www.fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/contact/index.shtml

        • Thank you Sharon! Duh…Scroll down Matty! I noticed the number of pages and thought they were missing, but they are just further down. Thanks for pointing that out.

          Based on that, most of my message above is no longer relevant; however, I will now post these sold and cut figures for Region One over the past five years:

          • FY 2012 Region One sold 208.3 MMBF, cut 219.4 MMBF.

          • FY 2011 Region One sold 211.9 MMBF, cut 202.0 MMBF.

          • FY 2010 Region One sold 253.4 MMBF, cut 188.7 MMBF.

          • FY 2009 Region One sold 292.9 MMBF, cut 186.0 MMBF.

          • FY 2008 Region One sold 229.2 MMBF, cut 167.4 MMBF.

          These numbers seem pretty stable. While the volume of timber sold has gone down slightly, the volume of timber cut in Region One has actually gone up from FY 2008 to FY 2012.

  5. It’s wonderful to hear (former, and current) agency and outsourced contractor personnel so deeply concerned with NFS expenditures. (Even if their expressed concerns are PECULIARLY focused on a minuscule part of the FS budget dealing primarily with defending their sale preparation, “stewardship and restoration,” and planning malfeasance.)

    Would’ve been great to hear from you all while a billion dollars of taxpayer subsidies were thrown into the one percenter’s Black Hole on the Tongass NF– which then created the next taxpayer boondoggle: the after-the-fact urgent need for “restoration and stewardship.” And all for the sake of agency orders to “gettin’ the cut out.” (btw, that billion dollar deficit was just since the 80’s on the Tongass National Forest.)

    Fortunately, Congress was paying attention though. The bipartisan, Tongass Timber Reform Act was the result, with the help of Taxpayers for Common Sense — but not nearly soon enough. The damage was already done on a grand scale. Really coulda used your help with the sharp pencils for examining the agency budget boondoggles then.

    But what about now? Are you actually suggesting laws of the land such as NEPA are more expensive than the damages which would be incurred by ignoring them? Are there no dollar quantifications necessary for the colossal costs of taking actions in flagrant disregard for environmental consequences to follow? I shudder at the thought of the state of the Federal Deficit, and the National Forest System in the absence of the constraints of NEPA or NFMA.

    I won’t hold my breath for those cost estimates. But I can assure you they’d be breathtaking.

    But regardless, now we get to play the “corporate partner”/ National Forest Foundation “collaboration” game to supposedly “restore” the colossal mismanagement perpetrated on the NFS.

    This is nothing more than the story of Disaster Capitalism narrated by circling anti-regulation, anti-democratic, budget vultures.

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