After last summer's wildfires, some observers blamed environmental groups for flooding the Forest Service with appeals of logging operations said to improve forest health. But researchers say it turns out environmental groups don't file the majority of appeals, and another report from the federal government’s General Accounting Office says most forest thinning-projects were never appealed in the first place. Sadie Babitz of Arizona Public Radio reports.
CURWOOD: After last summer's devastating wildfires in the West, many politicians blamed conservation groups for stalling beneficial tree thinning by filing mountains of appeals. But a new report from the Congressional General Accounting Office challenges that rhetoric. The GAO says three quarters of all forest thinning projects were never appealed, and of those that were, the majority were back on track within 90 days. Still another study says environmental groups aren’t responsible for many of the appeals filed on a variety of forest service projects. Researchers at the University of Northern Arizona have created a database of forest service administrative appeals, the first of its kind. Arizona Public Radio’s Sadie Babits reports their work comes just as Congress moves to prevent future fires.
BABITS: In the forest just outside Flagstaff, Arizona, four men are busy cutting trees, and their chainsaws ring through the pines. For the next few months, these men will be out here every day cutting more than 146,000 trees in the overgrown forest. This is a timber sale, and it's part of the Coconino National Forest's latest efforts to reduce the threat of wildfire by removing smaller trees.
Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi's district includes hundreds of thousands of acres burned in last summer's Arizona wildfires. He says this tree thinning project in the Coconino Forest wasn't appealed but many other projects in Arizona and across the West have been delayed.
RENZI: The 37-cent stamp is all you need to do to file an appeal, and the whole process comes to a halt. It's judicial frustration and constraint, where you put the hands of the decision in one judge or maybe a three-judge panel. Where it's more, I believe, a public policy decision particularly for the people of that region to decide.
BABITS: The national debate over appeals really took off last summer during the Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned nearly 500,000 acres in Eastern Arizona, and it continues in Congress. Renzi and two other Arizona congressmen recently tried to change the appeals process to make it easier to thin trees in burned areas. But the idea that conservation groups are abusing the appeals process may be a myth. Researchers at Northern Arizona University have analyzed 3,600 Forest Service administrative appeals, creating a database, the first of its kind. Researcher Hannah Cortner says the data shows environmental groups aren't filing most of the appeals.
CORTNER: The first thing that jumped out at me was the high number of individuals who filed administrative appeals. And we found that individuals comprised the largest component. And of those individuals that filed, a very high significant did not file in conjunction with another organization.
BABITS: Fellow researcher Jacqueline Vaughn also says, contrary to what politicians and press reports have said, the number of appeals has not increased since 1997. And, she says, the subject of appeals varies more than what's portrayed in the media.
VAUGHN: Some of the appeals, for example, relate to trail maintenance or road closures. Others deal with the recreational use of forests for things like backpacking trips or skiing. Some of them have to do with the grazing allotments and mining. So there's a whole range of activities that are potentially appeal-able that are not strictly forest-related.
BABITS: Environmental groups say the data proves their contention they are not to blame for the poor health of the country's forest. But whatever the source of the appeals, their impact is still felt, according to Mark Ray who oversees the Forest Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ray says the entire decision-making process--from the project idea to actually thinning and burning, takes too long--which is why the Bush administration has proposed a plan to exempt high priority fire work from extensive environmental review and from administrative appeals.
RAY: So, what we're proposing is that in order to file an appeal on one of our decisions in the future, that you do have to make a reasonable, good faith effort to participate during the public comment period, and express your concerns so that the agency has a change to rectify them if they believe they're valid.
BABITS: But whether appeals are the real reason behind the delay of thinning projects remains a question of intense debate. According to Senator Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, a new GAO report shows other factors, like a shortage of money and staff, are just as significant.
BINGAMAN: The challenges have not been a major impediment to them going ahead. But I think this report makes the case pretty strongly that it's the lack of resources that is, by far, the larger part of the problem.
BABITS: Other lawmakers say the GAO data is more complicated. They point out that more than half of all thinning projects are exempted from appeals altogether. Of the projects that are appeal-able, almost 60 percent are appealed. That's a very different way of looking at the numbers, according to a Republican sponsor of the administration's plan to reform the appeals process. As Congress continues to debate the wildfire legislation, it's likely both sides will continuing sparring over the interpretation of the data. Whatever conclusions they reach, there are almost 190 million acres of national forest still in need of fire treatment, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And the wildfire season is already underway in some parts of the West.
For Living on Earth, I'm Sadie Babits, in Flagstaff.
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