The Forest Service is on the cusp of finalizing its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) decision for the proposed Panther Ridge Habitat Enhancement Project. On November 21, 2019, Forest Supervisor Shawn Cochran issued a letter explaining his responses to the two formal objections to the project, one of which was filed by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (the other one was filed jointly by Friends of Blackwater and the Center for Biological Diversity). According to this letter, the Forest Supervisor is largely upholding the decision by District Ranger Cynthia Sandeno to move forward with the project. However, he did instruct her to correct several deficiencies in the NEPA analysis before signing the final decision.
The proposed project is intended to enhance early successional habitat for game and non-game wildlife, primarily through commercial timber harvest and prescribed fire. The Conservancy initially offered comments on this project during the official notice and comment period on the draft Environmental Assment, which occurred back in the fall of 2018 (see the President’s column in the December, 2018 Voice). Although the Forest Service made some changes based on our comments, we felt that substantial deficiencies in the project design and NEPA analysis remained, so we filed a formal objection to the project during the official pre-decisional objection period in the summer of 2019 (see the President’s column in the July, 2019 Voice). As we noted when we filed our objection, the Conservancy does not seek to stop the project, but does seek to ensure that impacts are properly analyzed and that sensitive resources are properly protected.
The following is a summary of the Forest Service’s responses to the objection issues that we raised:
- We contended that the single action alternative that the Forest Service considered in detail did not meet the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement to study “appropriate alternatives to recommended courses of action.” In his response, Supervisor Cochran concluded that the agency’s perfunctory mention of another alternative that was not studied in detail was sufficient to meet NEPA’s alternative analysis requirement.
- We objected to the way that the Forest Service calculated the overall amount of harvest and road density in relation to the larger area of the landscape in which the activity occurs. Basically, we said that they may be proposing more disturbance than the Forest Plan allows within a particular area of the Forest at one time. It is a complicated issue to explain in this small space, but suffice it to say that Supervisor Cochran largely disagreed with our objection point, although he agreed that the analysis of road density needs to be a bit tighter. His response gives the agency wide latitude in defining the area of the landscape to which these calculations are applied.
- We objected to the open-ended explanation of how the Forest Service would determine which skid roads would be decommissioned and the methods to be used. We also asked that the design features addressing road decommissioning be re-written to make it clear that all skid roads would be decommissioned when use has been completed. The Forest Supervisor asserted that the responsible official has discretion in making these determinations, and he stated that the necessary details for making these determinations exist in various places in the project file. But he agreed that the description in the Environmental Assessment was too vague. He instructed the responsible official to develop a checklist outlining how decommissioning decisions will be made and how methods will be selected. He did not directly address our request to re-write the design features.
- We objected to the use of the term “skid trails” to describe all of the routes used for skidding logs. Skid trails are defined as pathways that are created by dragging logs over the land surface. But due to the sloping landscape, such overland skidding is rare on the Monongahela, with the vast majority of skid routes being built by using cut-and-fill road construction techniques. Such constructed routes are defined as “tractor roads.” The distinction is important, because regulations and directives require decommissioning of temporary roads, including tractor roads. Supervisor Cochran directed the Forest to distinguish between skid trails and tractor roads in the EA to the extent possible. However, he offered a very expansive interpretation of the agency’s discretion to decide what is a road and what is a trail, which, in our view, is at odds with the very clear definition of a road that appears in the Code of Federal Regulations.
- We objected to the way the Forest Service used acres of clearcut and “heavy thinning” harvest as a surrogate for basal area removal in their analysis of impacts on watershed hydrology. Basal area is a standard measure of the amount of live wood growing on the land. Widely accepted research shows that removal of more than 20 – 25 percent of the basal area can cause an increase in runoff. We contended that the Forest Service was underestimating the amount of wood being removed because they did not include any of the removals due to other harvest activities besides clearcutting and heavy thinning. Supervisor Cochran disagreed with our contention.
- We expressed concern that the proposed fire line management techniques are vague and may lead to the cutting of beneficial downed woody material in stream channels. We asked the agency to develop protective measures to ensure that such cutting does not occur. Supervisor Cochran disagreed that such measures are needed.
- We raised objections to numerous sections of the EA that discussed impacts on watersheds and sensitive species. We pointed out that in many cases the agency simply stated that no significant impacts would occur, without providing any evidence to back up those assertions. Supervisor Cochran largely agreed with us on these points, and while he did not direct the Forest to do extensive additional analysis, he did direct them to provide rationale to support the conclusory statements.
Friends of Blackwater and the Center for Biological Diversity raised several additional objection issues pertaining to inadequate description of baseline conditions, inadequate explanation of the need for habitat enhancement and the methods for achieving it, inadequate analysis of federally-listed bat species, and inadequate analysis of impacts to recreation. Supervisor Cochran directed the Forest to resolve discrepancies in the analysis of the bats, and to refrain from making a final decision until after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completes its consultation under the Endangered Species Act. He did not issue any instructions on the other issues.
The Forest Supervisor’s response to objections ends the administrative process for public challenges. Once the Forest has done the additional work specified in the Forest Supervisor’s instructions, District Ranger Sandeno can issue a final decision and work on the project can proceed. If the Conservancy or the other objectors wish to challenge the project further, we would need to file a lawsuit. At present the Conservancy’s Public Lands Committee is still digesting the objection response and has not made a recommendation regarding legal action.