At VNRC, we believe one of the most important land management principles is to provide the public with opportunities to participate in the stewardship of our public land.
This principle is currently being tested as the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF) has started curtailing public input on the management of Vermont’s national forest. This runs counter to a long tradition of adequate public engagement and collaboration by the GMNF for proposed projects.
In the past, when the Forest Service has undertaken major projects on the GMNF there has been ample opportunity for public comment and involvement. This was done in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires, that “to the fullest extent possible,” agencies are to “encourage and facilitate public involvement in decisions which affect the quality of the human environment.” VNRC has participated in these opportunities and we have enjoyed a collaborative relationship with the GMNF.
The Forest Service, however, has recently started limiting public comment on projects. This started in the second half of 2018 when the GMNF unveiled plans to conduct even-aged timber harvesting on 15,000 acres of the southern half of the forest as part of an Early Successional Habitat Creation Project. To achieve this, the Forest Service originally planned to construct 75 miles of new roads, including entries into roadless areas to implement the project. VNRC, along with our project partner, Audubon Vermont, met with the Forest Service to voice our concerns about this amount of road building on the GMNF.
The Forest Service did scale back some of the road building, but then issued a draft decision and environmental assessment for the project in February of 2019 with only one proposed alternative and no opportunity for public comment on either document. This is the first time that we are aware the public was not allowed to comment on the draft decision or environmental review of a project. Because of our concerns over the process, we filed an objection with the Forest Service.
In late March of 2019, the Forest Service announced for the second time that the public would no longer have the ability to comment on the environmental review of a proposed project. This project, called the Somerset Integrated Resource Project (Somerset IRP) has many positive activities, but includes the construction of 31.8 miles of temporary roads to implement 9,630 acres of timber harvesting. This means combined with the early successional project, the Forest Service is planning to construct 84 miles of road (57 miles of new and temporary roads and 26.7 miles of reconstructed roads over the next 15 years) with no opportunity for public comment on the environmental impacts of these activities, which could include impacts to the state endangered American marten, and a regionally significant bear travel corridor in Dover and Wardsboro. Read VNRC’s comments on the Somerset IRP here.
VNRC recognizes the importance of a diverse landscape that contains a mix of age classes and forest conditions. Additionally, we recognize the importance of active forest management informed by the best-available science and the role of the forest products industry in maintaining productive forests in Vermont. VNRC has a long track record of supporting working forests in Vermont, including advocating for funding in the Vermont State House to support working lands, right-to-practice forestry legislation, a robust Current Use Program, and sponsoring the Forest Roundtable to promote intact forests and a viable forest products industry. With this in mind, however, we believe:
- The public has a right to be able to understand and comment on the impacts of proposed projects on the national forest;
- The Forest Service should continue the tradition of soliciting public input on draft decisions and the environmental analyses of projects. Adequate public input is an important part of shaping projects on public land;
- Allowing the public to be involved in a meaningful way helps to build support for planned activities; and
- Limiting the public to one 30-day comment period before even the environmental impacts of a project are disclosed is inadequate. Efficiency should not come at the expense of public input on the management of our public lands.
Please contact VNRC Forest and Wildlife Program Director Jamey Fidel with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.