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Forest Service Changes Rule on Project Protests
Objections must now be made before the final decision is issued
MISSOULA — The U.S. Forest Service has changed its rule on when an administrative protest can be filed against projects that require an environmental analysis.

The move marks an attempt to resolve differences early and avoid lengthy appeals over projects such as timber sales or road decommissioning.

Previously, administrative appeals were made after the Forest Service announced its decision on projects that require an environmental impact statement or assessment. As of March 27, objections to the findings must be lodged before a final decision is issued.

The idea is to have the different sides sit down together and work out the issues, Ray Smith, Forest Service Region 1 objections and appeals coordinator, told the Missoulian in a story published Wednesday.

"Under the appeal process, an appellant couldn't sit down with the person who made the decision or the person who's reviewing the project," he said. "That isolated everybody, and made it difficult to have good back-and-forth dialogue."

Administrative appeals are separate from lawsuits challenging projects under environmental laws.

Craig Rawlings of the Forest Products Network said timber mill owners he had spoken with believe the change will help make potential litigants participate in the process.

"Right now they just wait until everything is done and then file appeals," Rawlings said. "That does drag it out longer. I think the industry is very optimistic about it."

Since October, Region 1 has seen about 20 projects come under appeal or objection. Last year, the region handled 140 such protests.

The region covers portions of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Now, if a person has an issue with a project, he or she can work with Forest Service officials to solve it, Smith said.

"In an objection, you say, if you do this instead it will resolve our issue with it. That gives us a whole lot of meat to work with," he said.

The change does not apply to what the Forest Service calls categorical exclusions, which are supposed to be small projects that don't warrant a full environmental analysis. It also doesn't apply to permits for grazing, special use, access and mining.

Western Environmental Law attorney and Lewis and Clark Law School professor Susan Jane Brown said she is concerned the pre-decision objections won't improve anything.

"In the scholarly research on that issue — whether administrative appeals slow down or delay or preclude forest management — there's no support that links administrative appeals and delays in project implementation," she said.
 
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