Outdoors Outdoors

Environmental group challenges co-op effort

Clearwater Cooperative ties with Forest Service questioned

An environmental group is asking the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate the relationship between the Clearwater National Forest and the Clearwater Basin Collaborative.

Gary Macfarlane of the Moscow-based Friends of the Clearwater thinks the collaborative talks might be eroding the public involvement process outlined by the National Environmental Policy Act.

“These (collaborative) processes, although they sound nice, they tend to circumvent the existing public involvement process,” he said. “When the Forest Service comes to do the NEPA process, is the fix already in? That is the crux of the question.”

Macfarlane penned a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this spring outlining his concerns and requesting the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.

The collaborative group, in its third year, is made up of diverse interests, including representatives from conservation groups, the timber industry and local county governments. They are attempting to reach common ground on a wide range of topics, including new wilderness proposals and opportunities to help local timber-based economies.

Some of their ideas involve forest management that could be implemented locally. Others, such as wilderness designation or federal payments to counties, require an act of Congress.

The Forest Service is not a member of the group, but some employees work closely with it and help coordinate meetings. Agency officials say the collaborative processes enables people with opposing views to reach consensus on controversial issues and possibly avoid costly appeals and litigation. If the agency agrees with some of the ideas generated by the group it can adopt them with the confidence that there is some support.

Rick Brazell, supervisor of the Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests, said the group is helpful but it has no power to implement its ideas. Even when the agency adopts recommendations from outside groups, he said it still has to go through formal public notification and comment process.

Macfarlane acknowledges the group has no decision-making authority but he said because members invest so much time and work closely with the agency, their recommendations will tend to carry more weight than those held by people who are not part of the process.

“People who are going to invest the time in this are going to expect the recommendations they make are going to be implemented. If not, they are going to scream,” Macfarlane said. Cooperative member Brad Brooks of the Wilderness Society said nothing is wrong with the agency listening to the ideas of the group but it should listen to others as well.

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