On March 27, U.S. District Judge Michael J. McShane granted summary judgment in favor of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and upheld a 2020 Rule eliminating the agency’s protest process which previously resulted in unnecessary and bureaucratic delays to timber harvests and fuel reduction projects on BLM-managed lands, including more than two million acres of O&C lands in Western Oregon that must be managed on a sustained-yield basis. The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) and Douglas County, Oregon intervened in the litigation to defend the BLM’s 2020 rule.
In October 2021, three anti-forestry groups filed a lawsuit to stop the BLM’s “Mine Your Manners” timber sale in the agency’s Northwest Oregon district, which was approved after the BLM eliminated the protest process. The lawsuit sought to invalidate the 2020 Rule and reinstate a loophole in the agency’s public engagement process that allowed groups to unnecessarily stall, delay, or stop forest management projects by simply filing a written objection after the agency’s environmental analyses had been completed, public input had been received, and land management decisions had been made. Under the previous protest process, the agency would not give “full force and effect” to protested timber sales until the BLM had issued a decision denying the protests.
“We are pleased with the Judge’s decision to uphold the 2020 Rule because it complies with the public participation and objective administrative review requirements under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act,” said AFRC General Counsel, Sara Ghafouri. “Even without the BLM’s process, the agency’s level of public engagement during project planning is consistent with the procedures of other agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service, and continues to provide for an administrative appeals process to the Interior Board of Land Appeals.”
Prior to the 2020 Rule, anti-forestry groups could file these objections, called “paperwork protests,” that often contained hundreds of pages with frivolous points that had little to do with the work at hand. The BLM was then required to formally respond to each point, resulting in a broken process that drained taxpayer and agency resources while stalling or stopping needed forest management projects. The BLM’s review of 1,560 timber sale decisions between 2002 and 2017 revealed that 26% of the total volume of those sales were protested, and the average time between advertisement and award of those protested sales was 251 days.
In some cases, wildfires will devastate a forest where smart forest management is planned before the agency can even respond to the protests. For example, the Pickett Hog timber sale in southwest Oregon received 29 protests in September 2017, including a 250-page protest containing 126 individual protest points—delaying the project by more than a year. Before the BLM could complete protest reviews and responses, the Pickett Hog timber sale burned in the Taylor Creek Fire in July 2018.
The BLM’s changes to its rules regarding forest management decisions actually improves public participation by allowing the public to comment on forest projects earlier in the process when public input can have the greatest impact. “Under the 2020 Rule, ‘paperwork protests’ can no longer be used and abused after decisions have been made, simply to stall work that helps keep our forests healthy, accessible and less vulnerable to severe fire,” Ghafouri said. “This decision enables the BLM to meet its mandate to harvest timber on Western Oregon O&C lands while soliciting feedback from the public.”