BLM proposes modernizing forest management rules

WASHINGTON – The Bureau of Land Management is proposing updates to antiquated regulations governing administration of timber sales and protest of forest management decisions, which haven’t been revised in more than 35 years. This proposal more effectively executes the bureau’s modern watershed and landscape-level land management planning and evaluation process, which will enable BLM to make better decisions more quickly for the benefit of taxpayers and local communities.

“Over 30 years ago, the BLM proposed a protest process to ‘expedite’ timber management decisions. Unfortunately, this process has had the opposite effect,” said Deputy Secretary Kate MacGregor. “This proposal seeks to ensure timely action, including for thinning activities related to fire preparedness.”

“The BLM’s forest management program contributes to sustained yield of timber to support local communities, while reducing fuel loads and the potential for catastrophic wildfires that can devastate forests and surrounding communities threatening lives,” said William Perry Pendley, BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs. “Under the direction of President Trump’s Executive Order 13855 and Secretary Bernhardt’s Secretary’s Order 3372, the BLM is updating these rules to increase efficiency and to improve our ability to conduct active forest management on public lands.”

The way BLM plans forest management projects and completes the environmental review of these projects has changed significantly since the 1980’s, and these proposed changes will improve the public’s ability to comment earlier in the process, when views and information have the greatest impact, rather than relying on protests after decisions have been made. Abuse of and litigation over protests has delayed the BLM’s efforts to implement active forest management, with both economic and and public safety consequences.

For example, the Pickett Hog timber sale in Oregon received 29 protests before auction in September 2017 – delaying the sale by more than a year. Before the BLM could complete protest reviews and responses, a wildfire destroyed a number of sale units in July 2018. Under the proposed regulations, the public comments could have been addressed before the auction was held, allowing the BLM to award the sale and the purchaser to begin thinning operations before the fire took place.

When the current forest management rules were last updated in 1984, the BLM designed individual timber sales that were based on the location and extent of the forest management activity. Today, the BLM often conducts its environmental review on multiple projects in a single watershed or on a biologically-relevant scale, such as wildlife habitat for a particular species. At the same time, the BLM promotes greater collaboration and information-sharing during the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, which includes multiple opportunities for public involvement at times when the views and information provided are most effective. For these reasons, the 15-day protest period, which opens after a forest management decision is issued, often occurs long after environmental review has taken place.

When the protest period was first adopted, it was intended to “expedite implementation of decisions relating to timber management.” Instead, in too many cases today, individuals and organizations that are unsatisfied with the final forest management decision are using the protest process to delay implementation by filing lengthy protests with the same comments that were previously raised and addressed during the NEPA process. Responding to these protests can be costly to the public in terms of time and other resources, and in many cases offer no value to improve the agency decision or reduce appeals and litigation. It also leads to uncertainty during the auction and award of timber sales, since protest and appeal processes are not available until a decision has been issued.

The proposed amendments streamline the procedures governing forest management decisions by eliminating as unnecessary the post-decision protest period and allowing a single forest management decision to cover all forest management activities covered in an environmental review document. This would help identify any issues earlier in the NEPA review process, enhancing the BLM’s ability to resolve them before advertising a timber sale or implementing other forest management activities.

“Rather than streamlining the review process, as was originally envisioned, protest periods have proven to expend agency time and resources with little benefit. Focusing opportunities for public review and comment during the NEPA process, as the law’s authors intended, will enable us to make better decisions and implement them more effectively and efficiently,” Pendley said.

The proposed amendments also would better use communications technology by making decisions available online, in addition to other communication platforms such as newspapers and social media.

The BLM is opening a public comment period on the proposed revisions, which closes 60 days after the proposal publishes in the Federal Register. The BLM will provide additional information about when and how to comment when the proposed rule is published. 

For more information on the BLM’s forest management activities, visit https://www.blm.gov/programs/natural-resources/forests-and-woodlands