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USDA PROPOSES CHANGES IN FOREST SERVICE APPEALS

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed eliminating the Forest Service's administrative appeal procedure and replacing it with less costly methods of public comment.

The agency said Friday the appeal process was examined in response to President Bush's State of the Union address, in which he ordered a review of existing government regulations to see if they impose unnecessary costs or impede economic growth.According to Mark Van Every, spokesman for the Dixie National Forest, the move would greatly reduce the government's costs for the appeals process and speed up the Forest Service's land management plans.

"Up until this point, anyone has been able to appeal any Forest Service decision," he said. "What has happened is that process, in some cases, has been abused by some just to delay projects. In all, about $11 million is spent each year in appeals costs."

Instead of using appeals as a first course of action against Forest Service decisions, opponents would have to resort to litigation after decisions have been finalized, Van Every said.

At present, notices are published after Forest Service officials make a decision. There is a 45-day deadline for appeals, followed by a 100-day response period for the agency's response.

The proposal would eliminate the 145-day delay after decisions are made.

The USDA said its plan would expand public participation before Forest Service decisions by using "pre-decisional" notices and a 30-day public comment period.

The plan would require Forest Service officials to announce how public comment was used in decisionmaking, and would limit appeals to official forest plans, revisions and significant amendments.

The proposal will be entered in the Federal Register Wednesday for a 30-day public comment period. Then it will be reviewed for changes, implementation or dismissal, Van Every said.