Means to an end

Bitterroot logging fight raises old questions about NEPA

| January 10, 2002

It’s called “the process” and it’s frustrated nearly everyone who’s had to deal with it, including federal agencies, citizens and entire communities across the west.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law in 1970 by President Richard Nixon. Intended to protect environmental values in public land management decisions, NEPA has been successfully employed in many federal land projects, but the acronym has also become synonymous with polarization, anger and gridlock.

Last week it was U.S. District Judge Don Molloy’s turn to deal with NEPA when he heard three hours of oral arguments in the case of American Wildlands and the Wilderness Society versus the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service. Environmentalists sued the agency over its decision to bypass the normal citizen appeals process allowed by NEPA in the Bitterroot National Forest’s proposed 176 million board timber sale stemming from the 2000 fire season.

Appearing frustrated at times, Molloy tried to forge a middle path between competing interests. But issuing a ruling that would keep loggers in the woods for the winter while also satisfying the demands of federal law and ensuring minimal environmental damage proved impossible that day. (For more on the outcome of that case, see page 6.)

Is the system broke and in need of an overhaul, as former Missoula Mayor Daniel Kemmis suggests in his recent book, This Sovereign Land? Or is a workable process being manipulated for political reasons, as one prominent Bitterroot Valley environmentalist believes?

Kemmis, director of the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, is a critic of a process that he says stalls important decisions and pits citizens against one another in “long-drawn-out, confrontational, narrowly defined debates.”

By itself, he says, NEPA is a good and well-intended public policy. “What people forget about NEPA is that it’s not a law about environmental impact statements,” Kemmis says. “It’s a law about protecting the environment and seeing that environmental values are taken into account when decisions are being made.” Unfortunately, it’s degenerated into an unworkable method of problem solving that is more focused on process than solutions.

Instead, Kemmis advocates collaboration in land management decisions. Bringing all the players to the table—environmentalists, industry leaders, elected officials and ordinary citizens—will result in a more adaptive, creative and community-driven solution to land management decisions.

At best such notions sound naive and wishful to some, at worst it smacks of “local control,” an idea that sets off alarm bells of its own. But the alternative to community collaboration, Kemmis says, is often a winner-take-all ruling that leaves one side victorious and the other embittered and angry. Invariably caught in the middle is the Forest Service, batted back and forth like a political pingpong ball.

Jim Olsen, a long-time Bitterroot Valley environmentalist, former Air Force captain and engineer, is a firm believer in NEPA—as long as it’s executed the way Congress intended. However, when politics dominate science, federal agencies often find themselves in court sitting at the defense table.

NEPA, far from the bogged-down process it is perceived to be, is simplicity itself, Olsen argues, a harmonious blend of science and democracy that works well when land managers describe, honestly and in detail, the environmental impact that will occur if the project moves forward.

But the Forest Service tries to be all things to all people, Olsen says. “They’re not really doing their job,” he says, “and that’s why they’re in court so much.”

While Kemmis can reel off one western community after another that has used the collaborative process to good ends, Olsen says one need look no further than the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners to see collaborative dysfunction at work.

Kemmis argues that voters in western communities are so frustrated by the gridlock in federal land management that they tend to vote for people who reflect that resentment and act accordingly. “I’m convinced the reason we get elected officials like that is because we make people so frustrated and out of control. They at last turn to politicians who understand that frustration.” Environmentalists, he adds, only exacerbate the tension and drive voters to elect people who shouldn’t be trusted with the management of natural resources.

Collaboration won’t work everywhere, and no one, says Kemmis, advocates turning control of federal lands over to the locals entirely. The collaborative process should proceed slowly and on new projects in places where it’s already been proven to work. If approached on an experimental basis, in carefully chosen localities that have shown high levels of sophistication, collaboration will work, he believes. “You probably wouldn’t want to look to Elko as the first place to do this,” he says about the Nevada town that launched a rebellion against the federal government over land management decisions.

Olsen remains skeptical of the collaboration process. He is one of about a dozen people who sits on the Forest Consensus Council, a diverse group of Bitterroot Valley citizens working together to devise stewardship projects on the BNF. The group met weekly for six months before developing a 200-acre thinning project on adjoining private and public land on the west fork of the Bitterroot River. It was an exhausting and time-consuming process that ultimately looked to Forest Service scientists for reliable data and the NEPA process for public involvement. “In the end, we needed this NEPA process to feel good that we were really involving the public,” Olsen says.

Far from being discouraged at this news of the first collaboration of the type he envisions, Kemmis says that Forest Service scientists can and should provide expertise without being pitted against other scientists in the usual adversarial science debates that result from legal challenges.

While Olsen believes that federal agencies can stay out of court by following NEPA laws, Kemmis sees no end to environmental battles under the current system. Already, there is a bipartisan effort in Congress to try new approaches, he says. “I believe we will see legislation at least introduced.”

The alternative, he says, is just more of the same.

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