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Land Management Agency Discretion

Agency discretion towards land management has been an issue since the Forest Service’s conception. Gifford Pinchot had envisioned local foresters managing lands with ideas and guidelines that have been developed with modern science and conservation in mind. Since then, laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Wilderness Bill and Endangered Species Act have limited the amount of authority and discretion a land management agency has over a particular area.

These laws along with the current forest plans under the Land & Resource Management plans under the 1982 Regulations have made it possible for agencies to be subject to public opinion of whether the forest plans are best suited for a particular area and if the agency is successfully implementing these forest objectives. Historically, land management agency discretion has been much greater than present day. Land management was left to scientists and forest professionals who were entrusted with managing public forests for the common good.

This allowed for land management agencies to act without opposition from conflicting view points. But during the 1960’s and 70’s, America started to question the federal government and science. With the passage of NEPA, the public became more involved with policy decision making and opened agencies up to lawsuits and litigation. According to National Forest System Land & Resource Management Planning (1982 Regulations) Sec. 219. 6, the intent of public participation in the National Forest system is to broaden the information base upon which land and resource management planning decisions are made.

It is also the intent to ensure that the Forest Service understands the needs, concerns and values of the public. NEPA requires that the Forest Service issues Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), hold public comment periods, and issue a description of the proposed planning action that is available to the public. Though this limits agency discretion towards public lands, it is the values of the public that dictate how public lands should be managed. America’s National Forests and public lands are intended to represent the public’s values and interests.

With the requirement that the land management agencies issue EIS reports, land management discretion has been limited. Not only are the agencies required to report the current environmental health of a proposed area, but offer alternative plans as well. NEPA has held agencies accountable for how the public’s National Forests are managed. No longer could agencies, at their own discretion, choose which the best way to manage public lands is whether or not it coincides with what the public wants out of its lands. This was evident in 1999 and 2000 when the roadless rule was being proposed.

Over 1. 5 million people commented and about 29,000 people attended public meetings concerning the rule. This was the largest federal rule making process in history and the Forest Service was implementing the will of the public on their lands. All of this has led to agencies spending more time working paperwork than actual “on the ground” forest planning implementation. Add this to an increasingly diverse public land system, changing social conditions and under funding from Congress and the problems with current limited agency discretion begin to mount.

Under the 1982 Forest Regulations, it took 5-7 years to complete a forest plan. This doesn’t allow for agencies to adapt to changing environments and implement new forest plans. The process has become one of constant planning, time consuming and very expensive. Without the agencies discretion to implement new sciences, technologies and timber strategies to changing conditions, time is consumed by public participation activities and putting together EIS reports. With an increase in public participation and less agency discretion, professional forest managers have had much less impact on how forests are managed.

Historically, the public has put their trust in these managers because they knew what was best for the land. This has been a point of conflict for years. Local ranchers, recreationists, and community members do not always know what is best for an environment. New sciences and land strategies become available and yet our agencies cannot implement them in time before more damage occurs The recent increase of Off Highway Vehicles (OHVs) and snowmobile use has made it especially tough on agencies to adapt new forest plans to meet the changing environmental landscape.

Snowmobiles and OHVs have become increasingly more reliable, powerful and allow many more users than ever before the ability to go where previous machines have not. With these changing technologies, agencies are not able to quickly implement forest plans conducive to a healthy forest environment and still allow for these off road vehicle uses. Agency discretion is needed within our public land management system. Without it, our public lands are treading water, not really going anywhere. But the agencies still must be held accountable.

This is why I support an increase in agency discretion but still allowing for the public to keep the agency in check. The solution for this problem is not clear and is complex. How do you have an agency manage the land, but still be held accountable if they are not properly implementing forest plans? Local public participation is vital to land management decision making. These are the people who hold an area in question most dear to their hearts. It provides common ground for people with conflicting view points to come together for the good of the land.

Under the Forest Regulations of 1982, there are problems that must be fixed in order for land management agencies to do their jobs instead of constant legal litigation and paperwork. Since everyone has a different opinion of how land that is personally close to them, there always will be conflict. Land management agencies are at a loss here. Without increased discretion, agencies are running in place. But with it comes the likelihood of leaving out the public’s interests and needs, which is what public lands represent.

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