Washington, DC — The U.S. Forest Service has abandoned a massive restructuring of its environmental planning that would have pulled its biologists and other specialists out of national forests, according to an agency memo released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This retreat follows a series of recent setbacks in efforts to privatize large portions of Forest Service operations.
Under the plan, thousands of employees posted to forests across the country would have been reassigned and consolidated into six centers. Altogether, more than a quarter of the agency’s entire workforce would have been affected. The object of the plan was to “streamline” work performed under the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA, the basic planning law that shapes major resource decisions.
This agency-wide reorganization, which had been on the verge of adoption this fall, is being shelved to “avoid additional disruption and confusion,” according to the February 20, 2008 memo from Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell to top agency managers. The memo also states:
“After careful consideration, however, we will not pursue these options at this time…At a later time, we will revisit recommendations from the NEPA Feasibility Study.”
With little time left in the Bush administration, it is unlikely that the plan will be revisited anytime soon.
“This is welcome news for an organization that has enough problems; the last thing it needs is another self-imposed migraine,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization had first revealed the agency’s intentions. “The Forest Service is currently coping with crippling proposed budget cuts and a radically shifting mission without a survival guide.”
The restructuring of NEPA functions was designed to facilitate potential outsourcing of all this work. In December, however, Congress blocked further privatization of Forest Service activities for the rest of the 2008 Fiscal Year – another factor acknowledged by Kimbell in her memo. Last week, the Government Accountability Office issued a blistering report that found the Forest Service incapable of rationally carrying out Bush administration dictates to offer large sectors of its operations to private bidders.
Lost in the search for “NEPA efficiency” is the steep decline in the quality of NEPA planning within the Forest Service, which has lost a long string of environmental lawsuits charging the agency with failing to adequately consider the consequences of, or alternatives to, its proposed actions.
“Nothing is more inefficient than losing a lawsuit that forces the agency to throw away months of effort and millions of dollars,” Ruch added, noting that the Forest Service does not hold its managers who sign off on planning documents accountable when their handiwork is found to violate federal law. “In the Forest Service, the motto is ‘Screw up and move up’ meaning that those responsible for these legal train wrecks tend to get promoted and rarely suffer even the slightest reprimand.”