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Public Input is Important to USFS Land Management


The US Forest Service is an agency that uses teams of resource specialists to plan and implement management actions on the nation’s national forest lands. This planning and implementation relies heavily on public involvement at all stages.

Without knowing the agency’s administrative process, public involvement or comment on agency actions can likely be frustrating or confusing. Overall, the Forest Service uses a framework to conduct all its official actions that is to say that the process for agency projects and gathering public information may be generally the same each time but not exactly the same. This framework may be applied differently due to the agencies planning regulations or due to the type of project that is undertaken (logging compared to road maintenance). There are libraries dedicated to the myriad of ways the USFS applies its planning process. This article provides a succinct example of the USFS planning process and how public input is important.

First the USFS decides on an objective or a purpose and need for an action. These objectives could be developed by a resource specialist in the agency (fisheries, silviculture, fire) or a member of the public. This purpose could be to reduce wildfire fuels on the National Forest Lands nearby to a community or to improve water quality by addressing erosion from a road network. The purpose can be broad or narrow and can include many objectives or just a single purpose for a project. Officially, these project objectives are referred to as the “purpose and need” of a project.

From this purpose and need, the agency develops a proposal for action and lays out a general blueprint for what kind of work is needed to achieve the purpose and/or the objectives of the project. This “proposed action” is then sent to the public for input.

This solicitation of input can be done in many different ways. Often all the landowners near the potential project area are notified by the agency and asked for their thoughts. Sometimes an open house is hosted where agency staff are on hand to provide answers to questions and talk with members of the public directly. The agency may use the feedback from the public to change the proposed action, keep some parts, drop others, develop design criteria for the project which give sideboards for how the work would be completed, or create official alternatives that reflect different public or environmental concerns.

Part of the framework that USFS uses includes the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Under NEPA, The Forest Service must not only solicit public involvement on a project but also make sure the agency takes a “hard look” at the environmental effects that a potential action will have before a decision is made. This analysis of the effects may come in the form of a document like an Environmental Assessment (EA) which includes a description of the project, potential alternative ways to achieve the purpose and need as well as detailed environmental effects of the action and/or the alternatives.

After a document like an EA is written up, the public again has an official comment period to provide input after they have had a chance to review the potential environmental effects of a project’s proposed action and/or its alternatives. These comments, as well as all the others submitted on the project previously, are then pulled together and the agency responds to the comments when it issues its decision in writing. The response often includes answers to questions, descriptions on how the agency considered all the different comments or where different information in the document is located.

After this decision is issued, members of the public may object to the decision. The objections process is a formal process and a member of the public must have standing based previous input (official comments) on the project.

An objection triggers a regional review of the project and its decision. Part of this review includes a discussion between the USFS and the objectors to find resolution. If this resolution is unsuccessful, the concerned members of the public may choose to litigate the project’s decision in court.

Different National Forests often have many different proposed actions available for comment across their area. For a busy member of the public, tracking all these different projects and their comment periods can be a difficult task.

The USFS has a database of Proposed Actions called the SOPA or Schedule of Proposed Actions. The SOPA provides a list of proposals that will begin or are undergoing environmental analysis and documentation so that people can become aware of and indicate their interest in specific proposals. The SOPA is available online and for the entire National Forest system can be found here (

Overall, public engagement is perhaps the most important part of the project proposal process. After all, an agency like the Forest Service manages the National Forest which belongs to all the public across the nation.

Officially, the agency refers to this as “scoping” or gathering of public input. Scoping doesn’t just occur after a proposed action has been created or after a document like an Environmental Assessment has been written. The agency collects ideas, complaints or suggestions from the public over time and uses this information to fine-tune what is needed on the ground. Often the purpose and need of a project is informed because agency staff use public feedback in the first place.

USFS land managers work very hard to balance all different perspectives and inputs from members of the public across our nation’s national forests. There is little more valuable than an earnest conversation about land management. Part of being in a community is an ability to communicate and work through challenges together.

While the USFS planning process may be lengthy or confusing, it is aimed at providing framework where the public can provide comment and direction on the management of their national public lands.


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