QUINCY LIBRARY GROUP
P.O. Box 1749, Quincy CA 95971

 

May 31, 2001

Mr. Ed Cole, Forest Supervisor
Lassen National Forest
2550 Riverside Drive
Susanville, California 96130

Mr. Mark Madrid, Forest Supervisor
Plumas National Forest
P.O. Box 11500
Quincy, California 95971

Mr. Steve Eubanks, Forest Supervisor
Tahoe National Forest
Highway 49 & Coyote Streets
Nevada City, California 95959

Dear Sirs:

During the last two Quincy Library Group meetings a potentially serious problem for HFQLG FY 2001 and 2002 projects has been discussed in public between QLG members and US Forest Service personnel. By a unanimous vote, the QLG members present decided we should communicate directly and in writing to you to argue our case. We would appreciate your consideration and response, either singly or together, to the information and request we make below.

As you know, QLG members commenting individually on proposed HFQLG projects during Forest Service project-level NEPA scoping periods have asked numerous times for the NEPA analyses to include a “pre-Framework, pure HFQLG without the owl mitigation measure” alternative in each project's planning and analysis. These individuals have reported in open QLG meetings that their requests are being denied. It is our understanding that the three of you together decided that the adoption of the Sierra Nevada Framework (Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment) Record of Decision made such alternatives outside the local Forests' authorities to adopt; that such alternatives would require forest plan amendments (as though that made them unattainable); and that therefore the Forests have neither the duty nor the authority to analyze such alternatives.

If we have understood your position correctly, we would argue that you have a legal mandate as line officers in a Federal agency to fully develop and consider any reasonable alternative in a NEPA analysis, including one that might currently lie outside the agency's (or only a particular line officer's) authority. We would also ask that you consider several points that make “pre-Framework, pure HFQLG” alternatives “reasonable” in the legal, NEPA sense.

The National Environmental Policy Act set up the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and gave it the responsibility for both defining and overseeing how Federal agencies implement NEPA. Both the NEPA implementing regulations of 40 CFR Part 1500 et seq. and the “Forty Most Asked Questions Concerning CEQ's National Environmental Policy Act Regulations” (46 Fed. Reg. 18026 (March 16, 1981) are binding upon the Forest Service as a Federal agency. The answers to Question 2 of the “Forty Most Asked Questions” are particularly relevant to our situation, and are as follows:

2a. Alternatives Outside the Capability of Applicant or Jurisdiction of Agency. If an EIS is prepared in connection with an application for a permit or other federal approval, must the EIS rigorously analyze and discuss alternatives that are outside the capability of the applicant or can it be limited to reasonable alternatives that can be carried out by the applicant?

A. Section 1502.14 requires the EIS to examine all reasonable alternatives to the proposal. In determining the scope of alternatives to be considered, the emphasis is on what is "reasonable" rather than on whether the proponent or applicant likes or is itself capable of carrying out a particular alternative. Reasonable alternatives include those that are practical or feasible from the technical and economic standpoint and using common sense, rather than simply desirable from the standpoint of the applicant.

2b. Must the EIS analyze alternatives outside the jurisdiction or capability of the agency or beyond what Congress has authorized?

A. An alternative that is outside the legal jurisdiction of the lead agency must still be analyzed in the EIS if it is reasonable. A potential conflict with local or federal law does not necessarily render an alternative unreasonable, although such conflicts must be considered. Section 1506.2(d). Alternatives that are outside the scope of what Congress has approved or funded must still be evaluated in the EIS if they are reasonable, because the EIS may serve as the basis for modifying the Congressional approval or funding in light of NEPA's goals and policies. Section 1500.1(a).

Given that NEPA's goals and policies are to protect, restore, and enhance the quality of the human environment, and that “[t]he NEPA process is intended to help public officials make decisions that are based on understanding of environmental consequences” (40 CFR 1500.1(c)), we believe it is incumbent upon Forest Service line officers in the HFQLG area to give serious consideration to pre-Framework HFQLG alternatives in all project-level NEPA analyses because they have:

• higher probabilities of meeting the fuel hazard reduction objectives of the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act than the selected alternative in the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment ROD, which was known at the time of adoption to be less than adequate in terms of environmental protection, especially protection from high-intensity wildfire. This issue is described in more detail below.

• more environmental benefits than the Framework prescriptions, including forest health restoration and better long-term sustainability in terms of tree species, forest structures, and fire resistance.

• greater likelihood of being implemented because HFQLG alternatives would have less reliance on prescribed burning as first treatments of forest fuels than alternatives developed under the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment ROD. This argument relies on the assumption that the funding, personnel, and weather conditions favorable to conducting publicly acceptable prescribed burns will be extremely limitied — a reasonable assumption for the Sierra Nevada.

• greater likelihood of being implemented because HFQLG alternatives are more likely to be financially feasible than alternatives developed under the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment ROD. The Framework's 12-inch diameter cutting limit as well as its directed preference for prescribing fires instead of mechanical removals of forest fuels will both tend to decrease the economic value of the materials being removed, as well as increase the likelihood that service contracts or force account funds will need to be expended in order to carry out the projects. This point rests on the entirely reasonable assumption that the funds available for service contracts and force account work will be significantly less than the amount needed to conduct the needed treatments.

But perhaps the greatest reasons to analyze HFQLG alternatives in project-level NEPA processes are timeliness and efficiency in implementing the HFQLG Pilot Project. This is a very important factor to QLG members, and one for which we did not receive a satisfactory explanation from the Forest Service's HFQLG Implementation Team members at the last QLG meeting. In effect, we were told that only Framework-consistent alternatives could be analyzed for projects being planned for FY 2001 and FY 2002; that if the SNFPA ROD is withdrawn and/or remanded as a result of the nearly 300 adminstrative appeals that have been filed, every project under development would then have to repeat steps in the NEPA process in order to develop, analyze, and get public comment on HFQLG alternatives. It would be an unconscionable waste of taxpayer dollars and other resources to have to re-do all project-level planning in the event that the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment Record of Decision is reversed, redirected, or remanded.

Whether it stands or falls under appeal, the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment's Final Environmental Impact Statement does not constitute the final determination of environmental consequences, and does not relieve Forest Service line officers from their duties under NEPA to “... to use all practicable means and measures ... in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.” (National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, Title I, Sec. 101(a); 42 U.S.C. 4331) Thus where the SNFPA FEIS acknowledges that the selected alternative will be unlikely to meet fire and fuels objectives, it opens the door for project-level analyses to consider other management schemes better able to address the environmental consequences of current forest conditions:

“Implementation of these standards and guidelines could preclude meeting fuel hazard reduction objectives within individual SPLATs. Achieving a goal of modifying landscape-scale fire behavior to reduce the potential for severe wildfire effects would be unlikely in many cases under thise strategy.” (SNFPA FEIS Vol. 1, page 24-Summary)

The SNFPA FEIS also predicts that the selected alternative is expected to produce more adverse environmental impacts than other alternatives that include more active management:

“What is more important to effects on old forests is the probability of future fires in concentrations of existing old forest and the level of mortality associated with the predicted fires. . . . Alternatives 8 and Modified 8 would have a higher likelihood of loss of old forest to high severity fire compared to Altnerives 4, 6 or 7, despite their similarity in overall predicted decreases in wildifre acres burned.” (SNFPA FEIS Vol. 1, page 27-Summary)

Given these findings, we do not understand how a Forest Service line officer could conclude that the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment decision trumps NEPA's charge to Federal agencies to protect, restore, and enhance the environment — even if it means analyzing alternatives outside his or her current management direction.

Inasmuch as this is likely to be a critical issue for everyone involved in HFQLG Pilot Project implementation in the coming months and years, we would deeply appreciate receiving your response to this communication. If we or your staffs have misunderstood your positions on this matter, please correct the record for all concerned. Your prompt communications to your staffs and district rangers to immediately begin developing and analyzing “pure HFQLG” alternatives in all vegetation management project planning would enhance the HFQLG Pilot Project's implementation and prospects for success.

Thank you for your attention and kind consideration.

Sincerely,

 

Linda L. Blum

Edward C. Murphy

Corresponding Secretaries

 

cc: Senator Dianne Feinstein
Congressman Wally Herger
Regional Forester Brad Powell
Forest Supervisors Cole, Eubanks, and Madrid
HFQLG Implementation Team Leader Dave Peters