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Advocates Challenge Proposed Forest Service Rule Changes

The Ouachita National Forest, which covers about 1.8 million acres in central Arkansas, is one of two national forests in the state. (U.S. Forest Service)
The Ouachita National Forest, which covers about 1.8 million acres in central Arkansas, is one of two national forests in the state. (U.S. Forest Service)
August 29, 2019

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Conservation groups are challenging the Trump administration over proposed changes to U.S. Forest Service rules to allow approval of major projects such as mining and logging on public lands – without public input.

The groups object to the use of so-called "categorical exclusions" that would exempt the Forest Service from soliciting public comment on changes to national forests in Arkansas and other states.

Susan Jane Brown, public lands director for the Western Environmental Law Center, stresses that it's critical for stakeholders to be part of the decision making process.

"Public comments are really essential to the process,” she states. “When you ask the public what they think about a particular action that the agency is proposing to take, the public actually does have an opinion.

“And in many cases, the public is in a position to provide information that the Forest Service ordinarily does not have."

Under the new rules, the public would not be notified in advance of projects such as oil and gas drilling, mining and the placement of roads and power lines.

Arkansas has two national forests – Ozark-St. Francis and Ouachita – which cover more than 3 million acres in the state.

Public comment on revisions to the National Environmental Protection Act closed earlier this week. Some 36,000 people weighed in, with an overwhelming majority disagreeing with the move to limit environmental review and public input.

Brown predicts a major backlash if the Forest Service goes ahead with it.

"And so, it's much more likely that the public is going to stumble upon these sorts of activities and be really unhappy when they find them on their favorite national forest,” she states. “And in that case, the only redress that the public has is to challenge that decision in federal court."

Brown says many of the environmental groups opposing the changes, including hers, already are considering legal action if the Forest Service issues a final rule in the coming months.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AR