“Public lands advocates push collaborative approach “

A Nov. 7 article in The Missoulian by Rob Chaney.

Public lands advocates push collaborative approach

Collaboration brings people together. Lawsuits divide them. Reaching the first without triggering the second remains the challenge for those interested in the future of forests.

Montana public lands currently have between 30,000 and 40,000 acres left in legal limbo because of litigation, participants at Montana Forest Collaboration Network conference heard Tuesday. Getting beyond that might take congressional legislation or simply better local relationships, according to panel moderator Brian Kahn.

“Blaming environmentalists for litigation is politically inflammatory,” Kahn said. “It’s said by people who don’t know that eight out of 10 environmentalists are participants in collaborative efforts. That kind of polarization is fertile ground for demagoguery.”

Collaborative forest projects occupy a special slice of work in the woods. They depend on a group of local residents, county and state officials, clubs and organizations and businesses to semi-formally advise the U.S. Forest Service on how to manage a particular part of a national forest.

Projects developed through the collaborative process should have more value than traditional agency-industry deals because they reflect local knowledge about jobs, habitat, wildlife, recreation and other on-the-ground knowledge.

That hasn’t protected them from scrutiny by critics of the Forest Service, who sue the agency over alleged violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act, and other federal requirements. In 2013, the last year with complete data available, national forests in Montana had 13 of 29 forestry project decisions challenged in court.

“If you can’t find a NEPA violation in a document, you’re not trying hard enough,” American Forest Resource Council attorney Lawson Fite said. “These are policy matters. It’s not: Are you following the law? It’s: We want you to do different things.”

The Wilderness Society forest campaign manager Megan Birzell said making an environmental assessment “legally bombproof” was virtually impossible. She said her organization worked more to show where broad arrays of support existed for a project, in order to convince a judge that lots of different perspectives had been fairly considered.

“Collaboration is making a lot of progress in Washington, Oregon and California,” Birzell said. “That’s true across the west, except in Montana where it’s bogged down.”

7 Comments

  1. “If you can’t find a NEPA violation in a document, you’re not trying hard enough,” American Forest Resource Council attorney Lawson Fite said. “These are policy matters. It’s not: Are you following the law? It’s: We want you to do different things.”

    The first sentence is obviously not true. Federal agencies win NEPA cases all the time.

    The second sentence is partially true, but it suggests that compliance with the law and wanting different decisions are entirely different things. The policy behind NEPA is that if you consider all of the relevant environmental impacts, you may make a different decision. For substantive laws like ESA, following the law may REQUIRE that you do a different thing.

    Just for the record, here’s the Forest Service record from the August through October litigation summaries: 9 wins, 2 losses and 1 split. On timber sales they are 2-0.

    • Jon, thanks for the numbers on lawsuits. Yes, the USFS has a great win-loss record, but 12 lawsuit in three months… How much time and effort went into defending the agency? How many of the projects were delayed or modified? Rhetorical questions, of course.

      • Let’s see….

        A federal agency manages 192 million acres of public lands. On these federal public lands they try and do logging, oil and gas drilling, fracking, coal mining, grazing, hard-rock mining, permitting of outfitters, permitting of lease cabins, roadbuilding, management of Endangered Species, Etc.

        And in the course of 1/4 of the year this agency in charge of all these types of activities is sued 12 times, and that’s supposedly a lot?

        Just for fun, wouldn’t it be interesting to see how often the Veterans Administration or Social Security Administration (or basically any other federal agency) was sued in the past quarter.

    • Ah, but Jon, the point is that people can go to court with questionable NEPA violations if they have the pockets to hire, or volunteer lawyers. They are rolling the dice, and may not win, but at the same time the exercise causes delays of what is ultimately done and also costs the public lots of bucks, both in the exercises that the FS has to do (some rather silly, in my view) and the opportunity costs for what those FS folks aren’t doing.

      I wish we could ask Birzell why she thinks Montana is “bogged down”- I think I’ll invite her to write a post.

  2. Yes, I think you have just described the judicial system in the U. S. Anyone can sue anyone and there are costs on both sides. Is there something unique about the federal government, NEPA, the Forest Service, or logging that should warrant an exception of some kind?

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