This Land is Your Land: National Forest Timber Sales and Public Involvement.
This Land is Your Land: National Forest Timber Sales and Public Involvement.
The best thing that ever happened to me was the old-growth timber sale program on our National Forests. Seriously.
Twenty years ago when I learned that ancient forests on our public lands were being rapidly converted into fiber plantations it changed my life forever. Forest Service timber sales led me to law school and to the inside of jail cells. Timber sales took me to Washington DC and to the backcountry logging roads of National Forests throughout Oregon and Northern California. Timber sales have led me to some of the most biologically diverse places on the planet and to some of the most degraded landscapes imaginable.
Considering all that federal timber sales have done for me, I like to think that I’ve done something for them as well. I do know that there are thousands of acres of ancient forests still standing because of my involvement in the timber sale planning process. And I know that anyone with gumption and determination can make a significant difference in how our National Forests are managed.
Here’s how it works.
1) Get on the Mailing List.
Every National Forest produces a quarterly publication called a “Schedule of Proposed Actions” (or “SOPA” in geek-speak) that lists every timber sale that is being developed. This schedule includes the name of the project, its location, a few sentences describing the proposal, and lists the contact person for the agency.
To be meaningfully involved in the
management of your National Forests you must get on the mailing
list for the Schedule of Proposed Actions. No matter what the agency
(or anyone else) says, do not rely upon on-line versions of the Schedule
or a Forest Service web site to alert you to forthcoming timber sales.
Instead, request to be placed on the mailing list for the Schedule.
In addition to getting on the mailing list for the Schedule, ask the National Forest that you are interested in to place you on the mailing list for all timber sale and road building projects. Even well-meaning Forest Service offices may occasionally fail to provide you with timely notice of timber sales, so it is absolutely essential to always read the Schedule.
Magic words to look for in the Schedule include the terms “regeneration,” “salvage,” “even-age,” “group selection,” and “sanitation.” Those are all professional jargon for very aggressive forms of forestry, and if you see any of those words, it’s probably a timber sale that you are going to want to take a look at.
2) Read, Then Comment. Read, Then Comment. Read, Then…
Once the Forest Service has alerted
you to the beginning of a timber sale planning process the fun starts.
This sounds harder than it is, so don’t worry too much about all the
steps that follow. One step will lead to another, so it’s not so bad.
The first step is the “scoping process.” Its where the Forest Service is defining the “scope” of the proposed timber sale and asking the public what issues and concerns they should address in the planning process. This is a good time to get as familiar as possible with the forest and watershed where the timber sale is planned. If at all possible, visit the proposed logging site (we’ll explain that a bit later). Ask the Forest Service and local environmental organizations for any documents or studies regarding the watershed in which the timber sale is being planned. Read everything you can get your hands on. Then submit “scoping comments” to the agency indicating that you are interested in the project and detailing which portions of the proposal concern you. You may wish to request a field trip with the Forest Service as well.
The next step is publication of an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) by the Forest Service in which they tell you what they are planning and what they expect the environmental effects of their proposal to be. This is the “meat” of the timber sale planning process. Read the document immediately. Do not wait until the end of the commenting period. As soon as it comes out, request all of the “specialist files” and “supporting documents” for the analysis. Read those too. Then visit the site again. Does what is in the Forest Service analysis match what you see on the ground? Did the agency accurately assess what the likely impacts will be? Make your own assessment and then send in your comments to the Forest Service.
It is much more important that your comments be timely than that they be exhaustive. So send them in at least a day before they are actually due. If you email them, insist on receipt confirmation. If you mail them in, use certified mail. If your comments are late then they don’t count. Being on time is essential and non-negotiable.
3) Groundtruth the Timber Sale.
Getting out to the forest is a rewarding
and important part of timber sale monitoring. Most times the Forest
Service paperwork will not tell you the whole story.
Take a camera, the Forest Service “District”
transportation map (not the general forest map), a tape measure, lots
of water, more gas than you need, and a buddy. Groundtruthing is a two-person
job. Tell the Forest Service that you are visiting the site and that
you want the most accurate timber sale unit map possible and ask them
what you should expect to see while your out there.
Once you have reached the proposed timber sale units, compare what is contained in the Forest Service analysis with what you see with your own eyes. Take lots of photos. Look for riparian features such as springs, wetlands and creeks. Document them. Use the tape measure to determine how far riparian features are from the proposed timber sale units. Pay attention to the Forest Service analysis regarding the proposed “yarding” mechanism. Are they proposing to drag the trees out with tractors? If so, where? Are they proposing cable-yarding corridors? Where would those be located? What roads would be used for timber haul? Have those road been maintained? Do the roads cross riparian features such as culverts?
Take a look, take a photo, and write
it down. Then eat lunch and take a nap.
4) Subscribe to the Newspaper.
Each National Forest will have a “newspaper of record” in which they publish notice of their decisions. Ask the Forest Service which paper serves this function for them. Then subscribe to that newspaper and read the legal notices every day. Again, do not rely on the internet. Online legal notices are not legally binding in the same way as the hard copy and they may or may not be accurate. Subscribe to the paper. Check the legal notices, do the crossword, read your horoscope…make it a routine.
At some point you will see a legal notice announcing the Forest Service’s decision to log the timber sale that you have been monitoring. This announcement triggers the appeal period and will include instructions for how to file an appeal. When you see that legal notice, immediately ask the Forest Service for: (1) A copy of the decision; and (2) Where to find their response to the comments you’ve already submitted. Read the decision and their response to your comments. Is the decision one that you can live with? If yes, then great, you’re done. If not, then get started on your appeal. Pay special attention to their written response to your comments. Did the Forest Service acknowledge scientific controversy? Did they support their conclusions with evidence and analysis? Did they substantively respond to your comments? If not, then spell it out for them in your appeal.
The Forest Service is required to contact an appellant and offer an “appeal resolution meeting” to address your concerns. You are not required to attend such a meeting, but it is generally a good idea. Tell them what they can do to fix the timber sale. If the timber sale is so bad that can’t be fixed, tell them why.
In most cases the Forest Service is going to rule for itself and against you when considering your appeal. Don’t take this personally, it’s just what they do. If you really don’t like the timber sale, and are absolutely sure the Forest Service is breaking the law (please keep in mind that just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s illegal) then may be time to sue ‘em. It is essential that you not bring a half-baked or frivolous lawsuit. Bad lawsuits create bad case law, which creates more bad timber sales. If you’re going to litigate the project, commit yourself to doing a great job. Team up with a competent environmental organization if possible and work with an attorney that specializes in environmental law.
Maybe it’ll be the best thing that’s
ever happened to you…
George Sexton serves as Conservation Director for the Ashland Oregon-Based Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center and monitors federal projects in the Rogue River and Klamath River watersheds. www.kswild.org