Forest Service Once Again Mistakes Itself for CIA

lupinepicoblanco

Ventana Wilderness, Los Padres National Forest

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus bill, provides $650 million to the Forest Service for “road maintenance and decommissioning, deferred maintenance work, abandoned mine cleanup, and other related critical habitat, forest improvement, and watershed enhancement projects.”

In February, the Los Padres National Forest submitted a wish list of potential stimulus bill projects to Forest Service Regional headquarters.

Santa Barbara-based Los Padres ForestWatch and others have repeatedly requested copies of this list, but Forest Supervisor, Peggy Hernandez has refused all requests. A formal Freedom of Information Act request, filed by ForestWatch, has also met with denial; this time from Regional Forester Randy Moore. ForestWatch is now in the process of appealing Moore’s decision.

As the public’s right to view a document of this kind is not really in question, ForestWatch is virtually certain to eventually win their appeal. So why is the Forest Service stalling for time?

The suspicion is that Peggy and Randy are embarrassed to release their project wish list because it’s heavy on things like road maintenance and light on things like habitat restoration and watershed enhancement. If true, this would indeed be embarrassing. Habitat and watershed projects not only benefit the public resources the Forest Service is charged with managing more than road projects, they also tend to provide more jobs (and thus more economic stimulus – which is supposed to be the point of the ARRA).

In any case, by keeping the list secret for as long as possible the Forest Service is clearly hampering the public’s ability to effectively advocate for better projects. So is that the reason for the stonewalling? Would Peggy and Randy really stoop that low? Or is the public interest simply falling victim, once again, to yet another Forest Service cloak and dagger farce?

After all, secrecy for secrecy’s sake is hardly a new development in Forest Service circles. During the Basin and Chalk fires last summer, we were constantly amazed at the Forest Service’s determination to operate covertly. Basic information about fire movement and firefighting strategy and plans was kept from the public even when that information could have been extremely valuable to residents making difficult (and potentially life and death) decisions. Since the fires, things like the location and progress of work in the fire areas have been treated like state secrets. To the best of our knowledge the Forest Service has never even attempted to justify this pointless secrecy.

We understand that in the past administration all government agencies were encouraged to think and act as though they were the CIA, but let’s face it: Very little of what the Forest Service does involves genuinely sensitive information. We hope that President Obama’s professed dedication to transparency in government impacts Forest Service culture and practices sooner rather than later. A little sunshine and fresh air in those Forest Service offices would be a very welcome thing.

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There is, we admit, a certain irony here. After all, if the Forest Service hadn’t kept so much vital information secret during last summer’s fires, our presentation of that information would never have gained us hundreds of thousands of page views and most of you might never have found us. So we can’t deny that Forest Service secrecy played an important role in unleashing Xasáuan Today on the world. It’s an ill wind, we guess, that blows no good.

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