A proposed “reengineering” by Forest Service officials could move thousands of agency employees involved in drafting environmental assessments out of the national forests where they work.
According to a feasibility report by Management Analysis, Inc., a Virginia-based consulting firm, the “Business Process Reengineering” plan would consolidate all work performed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to six “eco-based Service Centers” instead of individual field offices.
At least one group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), sees the plan as a step backwards for the Forest Service that could have far reaching impacts beyond removing employees from their jobs.
“It takes the experts out of the forests, and so increasingly their planning documents are going to be done by people who don’t know the area,” says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who sees the move to centralize NEPA compliance as the first step toward privatizing the work.
According to PEER, over 3,000 Forest Service employees have NEPA-related responsibilities to assess the potential consequences of projects in the national forests.
For now, the agency hasn’t specified any time frame to implement the plan, and Ruch worries the changes will occur without adequate public notice or close scrutiny.
“Many more people should be included in the decision making circle than just the Forest Service executives,” Ruch says.
Dave Bull, Forest Supervisor for Bitterroot National Forest, says the move to alter current NEPA compliance processes stems from concerns about individual national forests handling the law inconsistently.
“I’ve pretty much got autonomy on how I go about meeting the intent and, I think, what this reengineering is meant to maybe change our focus to the same system to make it more efficient,” he says.
Ruch, however, doesn’t buy into that rationale.
“[The Forest Service’s] argument that they’re going to improve their planning by moving their specialists away is bass-ackwards,” he says. “The inspections and studies should be done on the ground.”