Chopping Down an Urban Myth About Litigation
March 4, 2010
For years, critics have complained that hazardous fuels reduction projects in the National Forests have been tied up by administrative appeals and lawsuits. Senate Energy Chairman Jeff Bingaman and House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall asked the Government Accountability Office to ground that discussion in fact.
Today, GAO posted a report that includes detailed statistics on public appeals, objections and litigation regarding hazardous fuels reduction projects on National Forests in recent years. The report includes the first glimpse of the “pre-decisional objection process” that was established for projects carried out under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003. Key finding: 98% of projects (and more than 99% of the acreage) involving hazardous fuels reduction were implemented without any litigation.
Sen. Bingaman: “It is encouraging that litigation rates remain extremely low and administrative review rates have dropped over the last decade. I think these statistics reflect a growing public understanding of fuels reduction and restoration projects, and increased collaborative efforts among stakeholders and the Forest Service.”
GAO surveyed Forest Service projects involving hazardous fuels reductions that were approved during 2006-08. Most of these projects were subject to an administrative review, where stakeholders can “appeal” a decision to more senior Forest Service staff for review. Others were subject to a pre-decisional objection process, where stakeholders can submit objections to a proposal before the Forest Service staff makes a decision on a project. After the objection or administrative review is complete, Forest Service decisions could then be challenged in Federal court for compliance with applicable laws. Here are other key findings:
· 2006-08 Litigation Rate: 98% of Forest Service projects (and more than 99% of the acreage) involving hazardous fuels reduction were implemented without any litigation.
· Trend: Litigation rates have dropped from 3% during 2001-02. For projects with potentially significant environmental impacts (i.e., those thoroughly analyzed in an Environmental Impact Statement), litigation rates have dropped by nearly half.
· 2006-08 Decisions Subject to Administrative Review: 84% of decisions approving hazardous fuels reduction projects were subject to the traditional administrative review process.
· 2006-08 Administrative Review Rate: Stakeholders sought administrative review of 18% of decisions approving hazardous fuels reduction projects that were subject to the traditional administrative review process.
· Trend: For decisions subject to administrative review, formal administrative review rates have dropped by 69% since 2002.
· 2006-08 Litigation Rates: 2% of decisions subject to administrative review were challenged in Federal court.
HEALTHY FORESTS RESTORATION ACT OF 2003 (HFRA)
· 2006-08 HFRA Decisions: 8.5% of the projects involving hazardous fuels reduction were approved under HFRA.
· 2006-08 Administrative Objection Rate: Hazardous fuels reduction projects approved under HFRA were objected to at more than double the rate of projects subject to the traditional administrative review process.
· 2006-08 Litigation Rates: The new pre-decisional objection process did not result in a lower litigation rate than the traditional administrative review process.
· The Forest Service processed all appeals and objections within the prescribed times.
· Although the HFRA objection process lasts not more than two months (30 days for stakeholders to file objections, 30 days for the USFS to respond), half of the decisions proposed under HFRA were finalized by the Forest Service within three months.
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