Cutting the Public Out of Decision-making on Public Lands

Photograph Source: Forest Service Northern Region from Missoula, MT – Public Domain

There’s a very troubling trend among federal and state government agencies to use “categorical exclusions” to forego environmental analysis on projects — many very large projects — on public lands. While the proponents say the exclusions speed up the process, the simple truth is they cut the public out of the opportunity to review and comment on agency decision-making. In effect, they allow government to run itself —  and that’s never a good idea.

Certainly one of the high-profile examples in the last year has been the fiasco of the Forest Service attempting to use a categorical exclusion for the sale of the Holland Lake Lodge to POWDR, a ski resort company that planned significant development on this fragile high-mountain lake.

To make a long story short, the entire plot to exclude the public backfired horrifically on the Forest Service, garnering more than 6,000 comments opposing both the sale and planned development and resulting in the re-assignment of the Flathead Forest supervisor Kurt Steele. In the end, at least so far, the sale and what many feared was over-development, has been dropped and the lodge owner is trying to find another buyer.

In the meantime, the Forest Service is now on the hook for its deficient, leaking, sewage pond that services the wastes from both the lodge and its 45-unit campground and RV dump station. It’s so bad even Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality is threatening a $ 10,000-a-day fine against the federal agency.

When the issue went ballistic, it caught the attention of none other than Montana’s lone statewide Democrat officeholder —  U.S. Senator Jon Tester. Leaping into action, Tester grilled the Forest Service chief. As reported: “U.S. Sen. Jon Tester even got involved. In March of this year, he told U.S. Forest Service chief Randy Moore that the categorical exclusion was a ‘loophole’ that was bypassing public input.”

Tester went on to say: “I would never, ever, ever have voted for a categorical exclusion for the purpose of making some corporation rich off our public lands — never happen, never gonna happen. I think somebody said they found a loophole here and they cut a deal. And the government should never be cutting a deal.”

Fine words when it came to a Utah developer eyeing Holland Lake, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander — and in that regard, when it comes to categorically excluding the public on agency projects, Tester is talking out of both sides of his mouth.

Why, for instance, is a categorical exclusion verboten for the Holland Lake Lodge, but not for logging tens of thousands of acres of national forest lands in the same vicinity? The truth is, Tester not only voted for a categorical exclusion for logging that, in his words, will be “making some corporation rich off our public lands,” he’s sponsoring legislation to do just that. His Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act allows unlimited amounts of clear-cuts up to 3,000 acres in size to be categorically excluded, as did his ill-fated Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

It’s puzzling how Tester can rationalize his hypocrisy on categorical exclusions. But allowing logging hundreds of thousands of acres of our national forests while excluding the public is exactly what Tester has supported.

These lands belong to the public, not the Forest Service — and it’s the public that has a right to environmental analyses with full opportunity for review, comment, and objection on its forest lands. To exclude the public means the government essentially runs itself —  and someone should remind Senator Tester that’s never, ever a good idea.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.