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Constraints to public influence in US Forest Service NEPA processes

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The Forest Service is mandated to involve the public during agency planning efforts, but involving the public does not necessarily mean the public will gain any influence over the planning decision. An earlier survey revealed that Forest Service team leaders commonly desire greater levels of public influence than they achieve in their planning processes. Informed by interviews with 16 Forest Service employees experienced with leading planning processes, this research explores the constraints to desired public influence. We found that agency personnel serve as key ‘gatekeepers’ to public influence through their decisions and actions during the process. Efforts beyond required procedures appear to often be necessary to translate normative public comments that might otherwise be dismissed into substantive public influence on analyses and subsequent decision making. Key constraints include a lack of perceived self-efficacy and fear associated with conflict, a lack of leadership commitment to public influence, overwhelming workloads and normative beliefs about the public informed by past and current negative interactions. Conversely, key catalysts include perceptions of self-efficacy in effective communications, strong normative commitments to the value of public influence at multiple levels within the agency, manageable workloads and recognition of discretion in addressing public comments by process leaders.
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Keywords: Forest Service; National Environmental Policy Act; natural resources planning; public influence; public involvement

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, Virginia Tech, 304 Cheatham Hall Blacksburg, VA, 24061, USA

Publication date: February 1, 2014

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