Conservation groups from across the nation today called on the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ) to end an emerging practice by the Forest Service that upends the bedrock environmental law requiring agencies to “look before they leap” when making decisions that could harm the environment.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), agencies must analyze and disclose to the public the impacts to individual streams, hillsides, forest stands, habitats, and other values before approving logging and road building. In a letter signed by 94 organizations, the groups describe an unlawful but growing practice by the U.S. Forest Service and other federal land managers dubbed “condition-based management,” in which agencies put off evaluating or disclosing the “where,” “when,” and “how” of logging projects until long after the agency has approved them. This makes it impossible for the public or agency decision-makers to understand how our public lands will be affected until it’s too late.
“For a half-century, NEPA has served as our bedrock environmental law ensuring agency decisionmakers and the public are informed before decisions are made that impact the public’s wildlife, clean water, and wildlands,” said Susan Jane Brown of the Western Environmental Law Center, one of the signatories of the letter. “The Forest Service’s ‘condition-based management’ approach is an end-run around the law and undercuts the public’s ability to respond to, and the agency’s ability to understand, the impacts of damaging projects on public lands. It needs to stop.”
Combined with condition-based management, recent increases in federal funding for large scale forest management raise concerns that federal agencies will fail to take into consideration site-specific project aspects and effects. Lacking details about proposed actions, condition-based management is especially poorly tailored for addressing fire risks in the wildland-urban interface.
In 2020, a federal court overturned the Prince of Wales project on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, rejecting the Forest Service’s attempt to use condition-based management to obscure the impacts of logging and roadbuilding on sensitive landscapes like old-growth forest. The project would have been the largest timber sale on any national forest in 30 years, allowing the Forest Service to bulldoze more than 160 miles of new road and clear-cut 23,000 acres of old-growth trees without specifying where or when these damaging activities would occur.
“Prince of Wales Island has already lost 80% of its old-growth forest to clear-cutting,” said Katie Rooks, environmental policy analyst at Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, one of the groups that sued to stop the timber sale. “We need every old-growth tree on this island to stay standing, not to be cut down under a vague, blanket-approval mechanism, which didn’t disclose which fishing streams, how much deer habitat, wolf dens, bird habitat, and recreation opportunities could have been destroyed. The court was right to stop this dangerous, ill-informed approach.”
“The law requires the Forest Service to look before it leaps,” said John Robison, public lands director with the Idaho Conservation League. “Even with ecologically minded restoration projects, you need to gather necessary information before you start so you don’t end up doing more harm than good.”
The Idaho Conservation League is challenging the Sage Hen Project on the Boise National Forest—a 20-year, landscape-scale project that includes extensive logging on more than 19,000 acres.
“Instead of crafting a carefully planned project with widespread support, minimal short-term impacts, and maximum long-term benefits, the Sage Hen Project threatens serious environmental harm, without public buy-in, and all for uncertain benefit,” said Robison. “This is particularly true for highly imperiled native bull trout, which are barely hanging on in the project area.”
As the lead federal agency ultimately responsible for NEPA implementation, CEQ should provide written guidance to federal agencies regarding the importance of site-specific information and analysis, as well as public engagement, to faithful NEPA implementation.
The authors of the letter include the Southern Environmental Law Center, Western Environmental Law Center, Vermont Law School, WildEarth Guardians, and Center for Biological Diversity.