Forest plans are key news with major local fallout for audiences who live near national forests. More than half of the 175 US national forests and grasslands either are now developing a new management plan or will do so soon.
As part of the process, they must work with two major new sets of requirements, the 2005 Energy Policy Act and the 2005 Planning Rule. But this new round of plans is getting off to a rocky start, if a trio of western Colorado forests is any indication.
The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests went through a lengthy public planning process from 2001 to 2006 for their joint plan, and were set to release their final plan in mid-July 2006. But at the last minute, Mark Rey, USDA Under Secretary of Natural Resources and Environment, canceled the release (USFS revision to proposed plan).
At first the delay was supposed to be just a few days while his office made its final review. The forest supervisor added that the delay was needed to provide "better clarity and organization."
But under questioning by Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) during a Forestry subcommittee hearing on Aug. 2, 2006, Rey said the delay would last about four months, until mid-November 2006. That puts it after the election. Rey said one reason for the delay was so his office could review the plan's compliance with the Energy Policy Act, specifically in regard to coal. Mark Schofield, member of a local environmental group called the Western Colorado Congress (970-256-7650, email), speculates that the existence of a few local coal mines and additional coal deposits adjacent to roadless and wilderness areas may be playing a role in the extra plan scrutiny.
The other reason cited by Rey for a delay was that his office needed to determine why the plan and/or some of its components couldn't qualify for a categorical exclusion. If it did qualify, that would mean the plan would be the source of little environmental impact, and would require little or no environmental review under NEPA (release).
Salazar said he was very puzzled why these two issues hadn't already been addressed during the lengthy planning process. He has asked Rey to more fully explain the agency's sudden change in direction, and to better describe the coal and categorical exclusion stumbling blocks.
The state's Republican senator, Wayne Allard, also was upset at the process, particularly with the money wasted to print the now-invalid plan, according to Gary Harmon's Aug. 3, 2006, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel article. However, Allard said he didn't think there had been political interference by high-ranking fellow Republicans in the administration.
Until more is known about the reasons for the delay, it's uncertain what the implications may be for other forest and grassland plans. Those reasons may come clear in a couple of weeks if Rey responds to Salazar and Allard as requested.