Giving the public a voice in our public lands

Why is public input important?

Our public lands were established with the simple concept that they belong to all of us, and we have the right to say how they will be used. This is especially important for the national forests that blanket our Southern Appalachian mountains. 

The Southern Appalachians are an iconic American mountain range with more than half of the U.S. population living within an 8-hour drive. These publicly-owned lands draw millions of annual visitors, feed our local economies, and are home to unique wildlife and biodiversity.

Informed public participation is the bedrock of responsible public land management, and it is often the only backstop to keep projects from damaging ecologically sensitive or beloved natural areas. Public comment periods provide opportunities for local stakeholders to have their voices heard in decisions that will directly impact them, and unnecessary harms to wildlife, forests and recreational areas are often avoided only because of scientific analysis and public comments. 

Attacks on public input

In recent years, federal agencies, including the US Forest Service, have taken unprecedented steps to eliminate transparency, analysis, and informed input on projects. These moves undermine the mission of the Forest Service, and can lead to irresponsible decisions with long-lasting impacts on our national forests and beyond. 

Tools used to bypass public comment include newly-created ‘categorical exclusions,’ which produce loopholes that allow the Forest Service to push though dangerous projects without site-specific reviews or public input. With these new exclusions, which were approved in the waning days of the Trump administration, even the largest logging projects in Southern Appalachian national forests can be authorized without scientific analysis or comments from local stakeholders. That means the public won’t know what is at risk until it’s too late. 

Public input is the most important – and often the only – tool everyday citizens have to stop irresponsible and harmful projects.

Sam Evans, Senior Attorney and Leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program

We are fighting for your voice

The foundation of our public input framework is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is the only law requiring agencies to consider environmental impacts, receive public feedback, and look for less harmful alternatives to their proposals. The act is a key tool protecting communities from unwanted and harmful projects, including pipelines, road construction and timber-harvesting operations. It’s also the only statute requiring the government to consider environmental justice and climate change in its day-to-day operations. 

SELC has led the way in court challenges to NEPA rollbacks and we are working diligently to encourage the Biden administration to undo the damage done to public voices in recent years. Federal leaders must not only recommit to listening to long-time stakeholders, but need to bring in voices from communities that have historically been underrepresented in Forest Service decisions, including communities of color across the South. Restoring a respect for our collective voice is the only way to ensure that future Forest Service decisions are responsibly executed and that public lands are truly being managed in the public interest.  

Additional Resources