What's the difference between an appeal and an objection?
When dealing with the U.S. Forest Service, it determines whether your complaint gets dealt with on paper or face-to-face. A recent change in Forest Service decisionmaking requires project opponents to argue their points much earlier in the process.
Proponents of the change expect better, faster decisions on logging sales, special use permits and other activities on national forests. Agency sparring partners fear it limits people's ability to block bad decisions.
"Frankly, we think it's going to be a huge improvement," said Keith Olson of the Montana Logging Association. "In order for somebody to become a litigant, they have to have involvement in the project. They can't come in at the 11th hour and throw a monkey wrench in the works."
"I think it's kind of screwy," said Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan, an organization that's frequently tangled with the Forest Service. "The normal process is they scope a project, release an environmental assessment, you comment on that, they make changes. Then they issue a decision and you can appeal the decision.
"Now they're skipping a step. It's not possible for the public to raise every issue that could possibly come up in an EA before seeing the EA. I think it's a way to truncate and thwart the public process."
During the announcement of a major revision to the Forest Service's planning rule last week, the word "collaboration" was a frequent touchstone. The agency managing 193 million acres of public forest and grassland wants the same connection with local residents, businesses and advocates that it's traditionally had with the wood products industry.
At the same time, it wants to spend less time in court trying to fix projects.
A little-noticed change in the Forest Service's 2012 budget bill eliminated the old appeals process and replaced it with an objection procedure for all environmental assessments and environmental impact statements.
"The idea was to get it down to the lowest level of decisionmaking," said Region 1 objections coordinator Ray Smith. "Under the existing appeal process, a deciding officer can't meet with appellants or the (Forest Service project) team. He only looks at documents, and that pulls that person away from the back-and-forth human interaction.
"With the objection process, the person reviewing the objection is able to talk to the objector, the interdisciplinary team and the district ranger in order to get, hopefully, a better project and decision."
In Region 1, which includes national forests and grasslands in Montana, the Dakotas and parts of Idaho, there have been 28 projects launched under the new objections rule instead of the appeals process. Of those, 26 received a total of 71 objections, but only three projects went to court. The Forest Service won one lawsuit, withdrew one project and still has one in litigation.
To object, someone has to get formally involved at the earliest stage of a project. The Forest Service tries to alert all affected landowners, businesses, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and other interested parties through its Schedule of Proposed Activities notices and direct contact.
Those who don't register interest in the project lose the right to lodge objections, and also may lose their standing to take the project to court.
"That concept of pre-final decision comes from the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (of 2003), and it works fairly well," said Earthjustice attorney Kirsten Boyles, whose law firm frequently challenges Forest Service policy. "It requires people be involved earlier in the process, and it seems to have worked fine."
But Montgomery countered that her experience with the objections process found projects poorly done. She recalled a logging proposal called Paint-Emery around Hungry Horse Reservoir that showed the flaws.
"This particular one had all this logging and 100 miles of road decommissioning," Montgomery said. "The logging went forward, and 10 years later 70 miles of road hadn't been decommissioned. The only reason those last 70 miles got done was (federal) stimulus money. The timber sales don't generate the money to do the restoration. So when it comes to implementing restoration, nothing happens on the ground."
Under the old appeals process, a project would get a environmental assessment or environmental impact statement, and an opponent had 90 days to file an appeal.
Under the new objections process, opponents have 60 days from publication of a draft EA or EIS to point out problems. Then the Forest Service will schedule a meeting to attempt and reach a resolution.
That still wouldn't have helped keep the Colt-Summit project north of Seeley Lake out of court, according to Montgomery. The Friends of the Wild Swan and two other groups lost an appeal of that project and are now challenging it in federal court.
"We couldn't have got our issues fixed by objection on Colt-Summit," Montgomery said. "Our main concern was that the Swan-Clearwater Divide is a really important wildlife corridor. Yet they were going to be logging in old-growth forest, which we think will detrimentally alter the habitat of that crucial area. And that was given no analysis at all."
The Lolo National Forest promoted the 4,300-acre Colt-Summit project as an example of the new attitude of collaborative decision-making. It had support of the Montana Forest Restoration Committee, which includes many conservation, environmental and forest industry organizations. It proposed 740 acres of logging and thinning, 1,216 acres of understory clearing and burning, 19 acres of clearcuts to improve tourist vistas, nine miles of road decommissioned or repaired, and 34 miles of weed-control spraying.
Leslie Weldon, the Forest Service's director of National Forest Systems, said the new format should produce more solutions than obstructions.
"Objections are only effective if we have a much more extensive level of engagement initiating projects," said Weldon, who was Region 1 forester in Missoula before her promotion to Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., in January. "It's about making things public at the very beginning, understanding the issues and concerns with a particular area, and understanding conditions on the landscape. Then we can use all that at the front-end of the process to inform what a project will be."