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Forest Sustainability Reporting in the United States
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Indicator 7.47: Provides opportunities for public participation in public policy and decisionmaking

An indicator for Criterion 7: Legal, Institutional, and Economic Framework for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Management

What is the indicator and why is it important?

Forests may be managed more sustainably if citizens have responsibility for their use, management, and protection. If citizens are given an opportunity to identify areas of interest and concern about forests, they are more likely to support the management of forests and the principles of sustainability. Public participation processes can foster practical and political support for sustainable management. Access to timely, complete, and accurate information about forests, forest resources, and socioeconomic trends will enhance those participatory processes and promote better forest management.

What does the indicator show?

Federal agencies all provide some level of opportunity for public participation in policy and decisionmaking, and varying levels of access to information. The Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 provides public oversight of Federal agencies, including public comment on proposed rules; a rigorous process of draft publication, and public review; required agency response to comments; and final publication in the Federal Register. This process leads to final rules with a reviewable record and science basis.

States usually have similar but less rigorous open process and information laws. Local government entities eventually must respond to citizen’s interest, but seldom have prescribed measures for public input to forest planning. Nonindustrial private landowners are not required to consult other interests or owners in making decisions or release information publicly, although many businesses do as part of their annual reports and other communications.

Extensive public participation for national forest planning is required as part of the U.S. National Forest Management Act of 1976 (191 million acres), as amended by the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003. The Bureau of Land Management, with 266 million acres, requires planning and local advisory boards for input. Other Federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (84 million acres), National Park Service (84 million acres), and Department of Defense have varying levels of planning and public participation that affects their lands, including forests.

Federal agencies also provide educational, technical assistance, research, and assessment support for sustainable forestry and public participation at the national level, as do many States. This support includes mandates for State forest resource planning and input, and support through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 requires an analysis of major Federal actions significantly affecting the environment. An Environmental Impact Statement is required for proposed major Federal actions. A categorical exclusion exists for small projects that do not require individual EIS. An Environmental Assessment (EA) may be performed if the agency does not know if its effects will be significant. The EA may require an EIS if actions are significant, or lead to a finding of no significant impacts (FONSI) if not. NEPA provides for public comment on the EIS and EA processes in the scoping and preparation of the draft EIS, and a formal comment process before the final EIS is issued.

If the general public or individuals are dissatisfied with the lack of openness of Federal public records, they may seek redress through legal actions such as requesting evidentiary documentation and other information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Similar laws exist in most States. Legal issues that employ these measures are uncommon in natural resources, but not unheard of.

Finally, as noted in 7-46, the forest certification systems have various means to seek consultation with external stakeholders, redress complaints, report progress, and update their standards periodically.

Table 47-1: Policy and Governance Classification

What has changed since 2003?

The Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) and the 2005 and 2008 National Forest Planning Rules each enacted new rules that affected forest planning and public input. Generally, each of the changes in the regulations was intended to simplify public input procedures so that agency managers could expedite forest management practices. These changes have been contested by environmental interest groups, in general and in the courts. The issue regarding the level of consultation required is complex, but HFRA and the 2005 and 2008 planning rules have allowed somewhat more discretion to the agency, which has been circumscribed, but partially supported, by court decisions.

Concomitantly, increasing public support exists for greater levels of stakeholder involvement in a variety of public decisions. Public policy input and governance processes have become prevalent from the local to the national level, across a range of ownership types and forest resource decisions. These processes have included government decisionmaking, and private market systems such as forest certification.

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Criterion 7 Indicators