Op-Ed: Don't let the government make public lands decisions without us

Weston Backcountry Owner Leo Tsuo urges outdoor industry members to oppose a proposal to limit the public's input on National Forest projects.
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Weston Backcountry Owner Leo Tsuo with skis on his back

Leo Tsuo bought Weston Snowboards in February 2016 from Founder Barry Clark. Tsuo led the rebrand to Weston Backcountry in 2018.

Under a government that relies on checks and balances, the U.S. Forest Service has proposed cutting the public out of the decision-making process when it comes to our National Forests and public lands. The proposal would amend the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—a law that you’ve probably never heard of, but one that every American has benefitted from in myriad ways because it's the foundation of our nation’s environmental law.

NEPA gives the public a voice in federal actions and requires that government agencies conduct environmental assessments before proceeding with a project. Among other things, it’s a critical check to help ensure that projects—from mining to road-building to routine forest management—are the product of science-based collaboration and local input.

But under the guise of streamlined decision making, the U.S. Forest Service recently suggested changing this long-standing and successful policy. Don’t be fooled. This is a blatant attempt to eliminate public involvement and open the door to large-scale and destructive projects across more than 93 million acres of our National Forests.

Shortcutting the environmental review process will severely limit the ability of communities to weigh in on Forest Service projects impacting them. Under this proposed rule, the Forest Service could move many decisions behind closed doors, so much so that they estimate that up to 93 percent of all proposed projects could proceed without any public involvement or notice.

Of course, the groups that want to develop our public lands have a vested interest in fast-tracking this rule.

On a much broader scale, shortcutting this bedrock environmental law signals that our public rights are under attack. Public input is an essential part of transparent government decision making. Without this ability, we’d never hear about new proposals affecting our communities. If this proposal moves forward, the voices of thousands of backcountry outdoorists and environmental advocates will be silenced on issues that impact us and our way of life.

Shortcutting a long-standing policy that protects our forests is a problem for anyone who enjoys the outdoors, including all of us at Weston Backcountry. In our home state of Colorado, there are 11.3 million acres of National Forests. These forests provide a home for native species, they are the headwaters of our drinking water, and they’re where we spend our free time every winter.

But the health of our business, like every other outdoor industry business, is intimately connected to the health of our environment; and to take away our right to weigh in on important environmental issues should be concerning to every one of us.

Our forests are already under immense stress from climate change, wildfires, and increasing development. Gutting the NEPA process would exacerbate this by allowing the USFS to approve the clear cutting of more than 6.5 square miles of National Forests without an environmental analysis or public input, leading to new and unregulated roads on our public lands that threaten waterways, drinking water, and wildlife habitat. Imagine heading into the backcountry only to find thousands of acres of trees clear cut, or miles of new roads paved over what was once pristine forest. As an outdoor industry, this hits very close to home, and we should be taking action to protect these old growth forests, not irresponsibly developing them.

This is not to say that we at Weston are wholly against expanding infrastructure in terms of things like roads. Roads open new areas for us to explore and, when developed using unbiased scientific analysis, can help keep forests healthy. However, bypassing our ability to have a voice to ensure that the forests are maintained for longevity, recreation and productivity is certainly concerning to us. Our system of democracy relies on checks and balances to ensure that irresponsible decisions aren’t made.

We only have a few days left to be heard as the Forest Service is accepting public comments until Aug. 26. Please take a moment to oppose this proposed rule by commenting at westernresourceadvocates.org/usfs. We need to stand up for our forests while we still can. 

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