The U.S. Forest Service’s Landscape Vegetation Analysis Project took another step toward implementation Thursday with a meeting of Forest Service officials and the public as part of a process to resolve objections.
A handful of individuals and organizations filed objections to the draft decision and final environmental impact statement, which must be addressed by the Forest Service before the decision can be finalized by Forest Supervisor Russ Bacon.
Jacque Buchanan, reviewing officer for Region 2 of the U.S. Forest Service, said her job was to consider each objection as well as Forest Service documents in order to decide if any further changes need to be made to the plan.
“This is a project that the Forest Service feels strongly about, but we want to make sure we hear from the public because we serve the public,” she said.
Buchanan said she had deliberately avoided learning too much about the project before the beginning of the resolution process so she wouldn’t form an opinion ahead of time. She planned a thorough review process with a team from outside the local Forest Service unit as part of her evaluation.
“We need to meet the objectives, but we need to make sure it’s done in a way that does not harm the environment or impact the resources in a negative way,” she said.
The aim of the Landscape Vegetation Analysis Project, also known as LaVA, is to authorize flexible management of vegetation on the forest in a timely manner. Specifically, the project would allow for the removal and use of beetle-killed timber in order to maximize its value and reduce fire risk.
The decision would allow for treatments such as prescribed burns, tree thinning, hazard tree removal and tree harvest on up to 360,000 acres in the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre ranges during the next 15 years. The project is intended to benefit wildlife habitat, water supplies, road maintenance, views, recreation and public safety, according to the Forest Service.
“The need of this project is quite simply to respond to the changed forest condition on the landscape at the scale at which the landscape has changed,” Bacon said.
The project has been in the works for the last several years, with the Forest Service developing the plan together with multiple local, state and federal agencies that also operate on or near the national forest, including Wyoming Game and Fish, Wyoming State Forestry Division, Laramie County Conservation District, City of Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities and multiple conservation districts.
Bacon said changes to the plan since its inception — in response to public comment — include removing a proposal to build 10 miles of permanent roads, closing the Sheep Mountain roadless area to commercial activity and developing a framework for monitoring and adapting implementation.
“The adaptive management framework, monitoring plan and trigger tables, I believe, are one of the most important parts,” he said. “They really do line out how we’re going to work our way through the process with cooperators and public to implement over 15 years.”
The steps in that framework are to identify an area for treatment, solicit site-specific feedback of a project, refine the project, and then review the project and its place within the LaVA framework. A reporting phase would occur after implementation.
Checklists would be in place to constrain projects to the scope of the LaVA record of decision, with triggers intended to alert land managers to actions that would fall outside the scope of the plan.
The LaVA project was first presented to the public in the summer of 2017, with a public comment period and open houses. Another round of check-in sessions took place in January 2018. More than 120 letters from individuals and agencies were submitted during last summer’s comment period.
The LaVA project was developed using a new planning strategy called condition-based NEPA analysis, in which the environmental analysis is conducted over a broad area instead of at each specific treatment site. NEPA analysis is required of federal agencies by the National Environmental Policy Act.
The aim of the condition-based analysis is to allow for flexible treatment within criteria established by the decision over a longer time frame. Districts can then identify projects that are ready to go and respond to changing conditions.
Potential treatment areas are limited by the Medicine Bow National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, which guides management in areas such as wilderness, roadless areas, big game habitat and areas of special interest.
Main areas of objection were the size and scope of the project, the lack of additional environmental analysis moving forward and the allowance for 600 miles of temporary roads.
Representing Wild Earth Guardians, Marla Fox and Adam Rissien said a major concern was the scale of the project, which precludes any site-specific detail among the Forest Service’s current plans. No future environmental analysis would take place when projects within the LaVA framework are announced.
“The (environmental analysis) is very general, and in that regard it’s extremely flawed,” Rissien said.
They also objected to the allowance of up to 600 miles of temporary roads. The plan calls for using existing roads where possible and decommissioning roads within three years. Riessen said he would like to see more detail about where roads would go and have the opportunity to comment before construction.
“Adding 600 miles of temporary roads on a landscape already overburdened by roads is concerning,” he said.
Duane Keown, a retired professor of science education at the University of Wyoming, objected to the size of the project and the building of roads in a forest that’s popular for recreation.
“This is by the far the biggest project on the Medicine Bow National Forest, and probably the biggest forest project ever in Wyoming,” he said.
Rob Joyce with the Sierra Club said temporary roads had a good chance of being used illegally and eventually being incorporated into the non-system road network on the forest.
“The Forest Service has a difficult time maintaining the road system and preventing illegal use, and non-system roads and trails are used daily,” he said.
Connie Wilbert with Sierra Club was unsatisfied with the framework for public involvement that the Forest Service had created in response to public comment, saying that it would be informative but not allow for engagement.
“Simply informing the public is not providing a meaningful opportunity to give their input and have their input affect the outcome,” she said.
The plan calls for vegetative treatments on 125,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas. Road construction isn’t authorized in those areas, but treatment with heavy equipment could occur within the roadless boundaries. Such treatment would require review from the regional office before implementation under the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule.
Shaleas Harrison with Wyoming Wilderness Association said mechanical treatment increased the chances that such areas would lose their roadless designation in the future.
“We’d like to see more wilderness recommended for this forest because it is so heavily roaded,” she said. “This plan is going in the opposite direction as it’s laid out right now.”
Forest Service spokesman Aaron Voos said in an earlier interview that implementation of the project would begin at the completion of the resolution period.