230 scientists nationwide oppose Forest Service move to squelch public comment

According to the Missoula Current:

Hundreds of scientists, including four from the University of Montana, have spoken as one in their opposition to a U.S. Forest Service proposal to squelch public input on future forest projects.

Just before the comment deadline on Monday, 230 scientists from across the nation signed and submitted a letter opposing a proposed Forest Service rule that would reduce public involvement currently required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Forest Service manages federal land that belongs to the American people, so the public should be able to have a say in how it’s managed, the scientists said. Especially if they have critical knowledge of how certain projects could degrade the land or ecosystems.

A copy of the full letter signed by 230 scientists is here.

10 thoughts on “230 scientists nationwide oppose Forest Service move to squelch public comment”

  1. We had 520 scientists write to President Obama about the Colorado Roadless Rule. Just sayin’ the “scientist letter” is nothing new.

    As a scientist myself, I’d say prior to learning from experience about FS NEPA processes, I wouldn’t have felt I had sufficient personal knowledge for my advice on a NEPA reg to be of any value. IMHO, conceivably scientists would be technically agile enough to negotiate a SOPA. SOPA- we’re going to do a fuel treatment project, here’s the info…
    Scientist- sends in 20 cites for why fuel treatments don’t work. Or “hey, you know there are owls there?” Or “my research shows that thinning is bad for carbon, or good for water supply.”

  2. A quick perusal of the signatories revealed a few notable “heavyweights” — Craighead, Eric Forsman, Chris Frissell, Chris Maser, Barry Noon, Dave Perry — and I’m sure many others unknown to me personally. I also suspect that hundreds of other eminent scientists share these same concerns, but probably did not know about the letter. Such letters have a certain heft by virtue of the volume of signatories. Reading the letter also reveals a thoughtful, careful, and detailed analysis of the regulation.
    Sharon, it seems to me you are somewhat dismissive of the letter. An agency devoted to “caring for the land and serving people” while applying the best science should take such a letter seriously and give it the respect it deserves. Can the FS learn that when they propose something and the response from a key interest sector is shrill, intense, and comprehensive, while the “beneficiaries” remain smugly silent, that the proposal is indeed fishy? Is the agency truly advocating for the resources (I suggest not), or bending to political will?

    • Jim, “beneficiaries”? I assume you mean the timber industry. But citizens — all of us — would benefit from more-resilient forests and less high-intensity fire.

    • Jim, I’m a scientist too, but perhaps not eminent 😉 . Of course, at the point that most of those people became eminent, there weren’t too many women scientists of equal heavyweight-hood.

      But I think we have to be selective about what we consider “science” and “scientific views,” and how much extra cred we give to them because they are scientists.

      I would think that the FS should give equal value to the letter from them as from SAF, for example, or any other group that wrote in.

      In my experience, there can be a broad gap between what individual scientists “think they know” and what they actually know. Some, especially of the silverbacks, are not known for their humility.

  3. I mean, hey it’s public land. Why should the uneducated “public” have a say in land management decisions? The professionals always know best and public comments are a pesky part of the job.

    I spent 9 years in the USFS as a forester and have been working on NF mgmt. issues since 1973. I definitely see the VALUE in having public comments on proposed projects.

    Sharon – yes, some comments may be off base or not very useful. But I can say the same about some info I was given by a GS-11 timber program manager and GS-9 silviculturist during ID team meetings.
    Steve – I agree more resilient forests are a good think. NOT convinced that we can log our way to Nirvana though…
    We should take the binders off the agancy’s hands (relax air quality regs in certain seasons; reduce the fear of burning up some timber that constrain district rangers) and support a robust, active burning program on NF land.

  4. “I’d say prior to learning from experience about FS NEPA processes, I wouldn’t have felt I had sufficient personal knowledge for my advice on a NEPA reg to be of any value.” Wouldn’t that criterion eliminate everyone but agency retirees?

    As for SOPAs as alternatives to scoping, that process does not seem set up to solicit comments and make them available to the public, and if they did that you would have to call it scoping. I wonder if the real goal here is to not become publicly aware of things that it would then become arbitrary to ignore.

  5. The Smokey Wire has become part of this story (thank you, Sharon). https://carolinapublicpress.org/29252/proposed-rule-changes-could-limit-public-input-on-nc-national-forests/

    The Chief has learned the agency double-speak well:
    Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said in a statement that the agency does not want less public involvement. “We want more,” she said. “The proposed changes would continue the robust public engagement that has guided our work for more than a century. Regardless of what changes come from the proposal, we will continue our tradition of public engagement and notification when we undertake any major project. Our intent is to invite public participation in our work in the right way and at the right scale.”

    This is all about trust – that each line officer will now include the public in an appropriate manner. While actually rewarding those who get more done with less). It would have been more honest for her to say, “Our intent is to cut the public out of the process in the right way and at the right scale.” But what are the incentives to meet that intent?

  6. In addition to the 230 scientists, 1 practitioner who had responsibility for government-wide implementation of NEPA also opposes the Forest Service approach to public comments (as well as other elements of the proposed rule changes).

    “It is not sufficient to say that additional public engagement is at the discretion of the local responsible official. History teaches that when a requirement is eliminated and emphasis on speed or streamlining continues to grow, then there is little, if any, likelihood that early engagement such as scoping will be used.”

    Horst Greczmiel, former Associate Director for NEPA Oversight at the Council on Environmental Quality (https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=FS-2019-0010-8084)

    • Yes, well, Horst’s experience is the sum of all federal agencies. Reasonable people can disagree as to how FS officials will behave and we all project our own experiences, which may be less generic than Horst’s quote “rules make thing generally better and discretion not so much.”

  7. … Except that Horst’s analysis is not nearly as generic as you claim. The statement you just made up, put in quotation marks, and attributed to him is a dramatic oversimplification of his position. Reasonable people can indeed disagree but making up quotes to argue against a straw man is misleading, fallacious, and patently unreasonable.

    Here’s an actual quote from his comment letter:

    “The Forest Service was often held out as an example of early engagement, one of a very few federal agencies to employ scoping to enhance early engagement for CEs and Environmental Assessments (EAs). Consequently, it is disheartening to see the proposed rule eliminate the requirement for scoping for all but Environmental Impact Statements (EISs). Scoping should be required, especially in light of the proposed expanded application of CEs to activities such as timber harvest, road management, and construction. These types of activities are potentially more impactful on the environment with effects that are often environmentally controversial.”

    Read his comment letter in its entirety. His assessment is, in fact, quite closely tailored to the Forest Service’s unique culture, resources, and activities.


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