Without any public notice or announcement, Gov. Tom Corbett has successfully petitioned the U.S. Agriculture Department to designate the entire Allegheny National Forest as an "insect and disease treatment area," which forest advocates say will lead to more logging.
Using new authority granted to state governors in the 2014 federal Farm Bill, Mr. Corbett, in a letter dated April 4, said such a designation would allow for "expedited treatment" in areas where a broad array of insects and diseases is causing forest decline in the Allegheny National Forest now and for the next 15 years.
The Farm Bill provisions will allow treatment -- including timbering, tree thinning and herbicide use -- on "forest restoration projects" of up to 3,000 acres each throughout the state's only national forest. Such expanded forest management programs can be planned and approved without the Forest Service conducting new or site-specific environmental assessments or impact statements required by the National Environmental Protection Act. And the provisions also suspend requirements that the public be given an opportunity to appeal individual treatment projects.
The governor's three-page letter, which his press office released earlier this month in response to questions by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was also among the documents and emails obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through a Freedom of Information Act request by Ryan Talbot of the Allegheny Defense Project, a forest advocacy organization. Those emails show that national and state timber and forest products industry officials initiated discussions in February with the Forest Service and state forestry and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources officials about using the Farm Bill "treatment area" provisions in the Allegheny National Forest. Those discussions led to the designation of 98 percent of the forest for "treatment."
"The problem is the secrecy, and also that this petition opens up the ANF to logging all over the forest with a much-streamlined review process and elimination of public appeals," said Mr. Talbot. "The Forest Service will claim this is a collaborative process, but there should have first been public input and comment on the designations."
"The Forest Service and Corbett administration worked behind closed doors with the timber industry to decide how much of the Allegheny National Forest should be designated as 'insect and disease treatment areas,' " said Peter Wray, conservation chair of the Allegheny Group of the Sierra Club. "The Allegheny is a national forest and Gov. Corbett and the timber industry should not be allowed to drown out the voices of citizens who have an equal right to guide the management of the Allegheny."
Nadine Pollock, a Forest Service ecosystems staff officer who participated in the email exchanges with industry and other state and federal foresters, said the Farm Bill did not require public involvement in the designation process, but there will be early public involvement, "full collaboration" and "totally transparent public involvement" on specific treatment projects in the ANF.
"We will want to encourage everyone to be part of the early process so we can have purpose-and-need goals that everyone can understand," Ms. Pollock said. "We guarantee this will be an open process."
Although the governor's press office has issued more than 80 releases since April 4, when the governor petitioned the Forest Service, Patrick Henderson, Mr. Corbett's energy executive and deputy chief of staff, said the petitioning and its approval wasn't mentioned in any of them because "while definitely good news ... this was for the most part a local issue."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a release thanking the Forest Service for approving his forest treatment designation request on May 21, and West Virginia State forester Randy Dye did the same in a release on June 2.
Mr. Henderson said the Forest Service designation was based on factual assessments of forest health by federal and state foresters, adding that the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association and the Allegheny Hardwoods Utilization Group also provided information and support.
'Too much latitude'
The Forest Service announced May 20 that it had accepted the petitions from Pennsylvania and 34 other states for designating 45.6 million acres of national forest land for expedited treatment of diseased and pest-infested forests, and removal of dead or dying trees in wildfire-prone forests.
Ernie Reed, president of Heartwood, an Eastern forest and community advocacy organization based in Bloomington, Ill., said in an Allegheny Defense Project news release that restricting public oversight and appeals allows the Forest Service too much latitude to do controversial cutting.
"History has shown that when legislators conspire to allow the Forest Service to operate without environmental or public accountability, our forests, rivers and wildlife pay the price," he said.
"This is taking place on 95 national forests in 35 states," Mr. Talbot said, "so it is a very big deal." He predicted a "dramatic expansion" of timbering activity on the 506,000-acre forest, located in Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren counties, 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Only the 8,979 acres permanently classified as wilderness and 12,379 acres in the forest's Minister Valley and Chestnut Ridge areas, listed as "wilderness study areas," are excluded from the designation.
Ms. Pollock of the U.S. Forest Service said the entire forest, except for the wilderness and study areas, was designated as a project area because "the thinking was to have the tools available that the Farm Bill provides," and there are no plans for increased timber cutting.
She said forest industry groups approached the Forest Service about the Farm Bill provisions, and initially the ANF staff was unsure whether the forest would qualify for the expedited treatment provisions. A broader interpretation of the legislation, suggested by the industry, allowed for formulation of the treatment proposal.
Mr. Talbot said the emails show a high level of timber industry involvement and influence in the designation process.
"Why was the timber industry given this level of influence over the interpretation of this law?" he said. "Imagine the uproar if environmental groups had that kind of access over the interpretation and implementation of a new law that Congress passed."
Species vulnerable to insects
Mr. Corbett's petition letter notes that the forest contains "38 inventoried commercial tree species" and nine noncommercial species, and that "most of these species are currently impacted by or are vulnerable to various insects and diseases that cause tree mortality and forest decline."
As justification for the designation, the governor's letter cites and details forest-damaging insects and diseases such as beech bark disease, the hemlock woolly adelgid, gypsy moth, emerald ash borer, sirex woodwasp and a variety of native tree defoliators, including the forest and eastern tent caterpillars, cherry scallop shell moth and the elm spanworm.
Paul Lyskava, executive director of the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, confirmed that the industry brought the forest treatment provisions to the attention of "both the governor and the ANF staff." He defended the designation of the whole forest as a treatment area, but said he was surprised and attributed that forest-wide expansion of the treatment area to Forest Service staff.
"It's optimal for [the ANF] to use the same expedited process already in effect out West," Mr. Lyskava said.
Emails show Mr. Lyskava's interest in the forest health provisions of the Farm Bill was sparked in February by Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resources Coalition, a national coalition of wood products, paper and renewable energy companies and regional trade associations whose members use national forest timber.
Mr. Imbergamo sent a Feb. 12 email to his policy committee members telling them to identify national forest areas for designation. And on Feb. 25, in response to an email from Mr. Lyskava seeking guidance, Mr. Imbergamo told him to contact Forest Service staff quickly for help.
"If there are specific hardwood species that [sic] experiencing declines," Mr. Imbergamo wrote in his email, "which could respond positively to veg management (i.e. -- harvest beyond what they are doing now), it behooves them to identify the watersheds and to describe in general terms what they could do using the expedited NEPA to get those projects in place."
Mr. Imbergamo did not respond to several phone calls requesting comment.
A dense, wet, rich forest
Although most of the Farm Bill treatment areas in the West will target removal of dead and diseased trees to reduce a rapidly growing wildfire risk, that's not a concern on the Allegheny, which sometimes gets the nickname "Asbestos Forest" because of its rainfall and moisture content.
The Allegheny is also different from almost all of the 154 other national forests because it has traditionally been one of the few where timber sales of desirable trees such as black cherry, red oak, sugar maple, ash, hemlock and tulip poplar are profitable.
Mr. Lyskava said the industry was motivated by forest health concerns, not increased timber access to the ANF's hardwoods. He called the amount of additional timber that will come from the ANF "inconsequential," adding that salvage timber from dead or dying trees has reduced market value.
"The expanded timbering will support jobs in the region, but the benefits of it are much more than just getting additional board feet off the Allegheny. We have concern about forest health as much as other folks do," Mr. Lyskava said.
"It's not a healthy forest and it's not going to get better if there isn't active management."
The Forest Service says the warming climate and droughts have made 81 million acres of federal forest land susceptible to invasive pests and insect and disease epidemics that have stressed or killed trees and put more than 58 million acres of forests at risk of wildfires. The problem is especially bad in Western states, where up to 15 million acres could burn annually over the next several years.
"We don't have the fire concerns, but we do have the same kind of mortality from disease and insect infestation. There is a lot of mortality and the impacts are forest-wide," said Sue Swanson of the Allegheny Hardwood Utilization Group Inc., who in a Feb. 27 email asked the Forest Service to review maps with a forest industry "working group" and identify areas of the forest that would be eligible for treatment. Despite the widespread forest health problems, she said she doesn't anticipate a lot of additional cutting.
"Because of the emerald ash borer, we may see timbering of ash that is dead or dying, but I wouldn't expect it to amount to any big volume," she said.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.