Today the U.S. Forest Service released an advance copy of its proposed rule to overhaul its environmental analysis procedures under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which will dramatically curtail the role the public and science play in land management decisions on 193 million acres of national forest lands across the country.
These changes would create loopholes to increase the pace and scale of resource extraction, including logging and mining, all while limiting the scope of public awareness and input on proposed projects. The Forest Service has proposed several new categorical exclusions that would allow the agency to move project planning behind closed doors by cutting out the public out from the decision-making process.
The goal of NEPA is to foster better decisions to protect, restore, and enhance our environment and is based on three key principles: 1) transparency; 2) informed decision making; and 3) giving the public a voice. This is achieved through two key tools: public comment and requiring the Forest Service to “look before it leaps” by preparing environmental assessments (EA) and environmental impact statements (EIS). These documents provide agency decision makers, the public and outside experts with relevant information and require agencies to take a “hard look” at the potential environmental consequences of a proposed project before making decisions and taking actions.
The Forest Service’s proposed rule undermines these basic tenets by increasing the number and scope of “categorical exclusions” for nearly every type of land management action, and exempts those decisions from public comment. Only cursory public notice may occur.
“Balancing America’s many needs and uses on our public lands is hard work, but it’s the Forest Service’s most important job—today’s proposal makes it clear that the agency is turning its back on that responsibility,” said Sam Evans, leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s National Forests and Parks Program. “Instead of working to balance the many ecological, economic, and recreational demands of our National Forests, the Forest Service is proposing to cut the public out of decisions that could cause serious harms to these treasured places, and to return to back-room decision making without any transparency or accountability.”
“The Forest Service has used the mantra of ‘shared stewardship’ to describe its management goals for national forests with stakeholders such as states, tribes, and the broader public,” said Susan Jane Brown, staff attorney and public lands director with the Western Environmental Law Center. “But this proposed rule cuts the public out by authorizing nearly every land management action without detailed environmental analysis and public comment or administrative review. That’s no one’s definition of shared stewardship.”
“This proposed rule is an affront to our national forests and their owners – the American people. It would gut important procedural safeguards for our most sensitive forest lands and resources, including roadless and other wildlands that provide our drinking water, wildlife habitat, and unmatched recreation opportunities,” said Alison Flint, director of litigation and agency policy at The Wilderness Society. “The rule would shut the public out of the environmental review process by allow damaging logging and road-building projects in those areas to move forward with no public input or environmental analysis. This comes at the same time that the Forest Service is weakening substantive protections for those same roadless areas.”
To justify its proposed rule, the Forest Service argues that changes to NEPA are necessary to increase its efficiency and increase the pace and scale of land management decisionmaking. However, the Forest Service itself has acknowledged that a lack of internal agency capacity and training, as well as an agency culture that rewards “moving out to move up” (or, agency turnover), leads to delays in planning and implementation. The proposed rule does not address this fundamental problem.
“The proposed changes for planning under the National Environmental Policy Act is just the latest example of this administration ignoring its responsibilities to steward public lands for wildlife, watersheds, and recreation values in pursuit of increased development on national forests,” said Peter Nelson, director of federal lands at Defenders of Wildlife. “They would diminish the public’s ability to carefully examine the impacts of logging and roadbuilding projects on national forests or to hold the administration accountable for decisions that harm public lands, as well as the wildlife and communities that depend on them.”
“Yet again the Trump administration is rolling back vital safeguards and curtailing public input. These changes will not protect our forests from fire, but rather risk their future,” said Kirin Kennedy, Sierra Club deputy legislative director for lands and wildlife.
“The Trump administration is trying to stifle the public’s voice and hide environmental damage to public lands,” said Ted Zukoski, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These rules would let the Forest Service sidestep bedrock environmental laws. Logging companies could bulldoze hundreds of miles of new roads and chainsaw miles of national forests while ignoring the damage to wildlife and waterways. All of this would happen without involving nearby communities or forest visitors.”
Background: Changes in the proposed draft rule
Expands categorical exclusions. NEPA allows certain projects to be categorically excluded from detailed environmental review. In some cases, the public would only be notified of a proposed project, without an opportunity to review or comment on its environmental consequences. As a result, the federal courts will be the only way for the public to have their voice heard. The Forest Service also proposes to adopt any categorical exclusion created by any other federal agency as its own, without discussing the environmental effects or appropriateness of these potentially limitless exclusions.
Utilization of “determinations of NEPA adequacy.” This new proposed authority, based on similar Department of Interior authority, would allow the Forest Service to rely on its “experience” with past projects to authorize a proposed action of a similar nature without conducting site-specific environmental analysis. However, because the Forest Service rarely monitors the actual effects of its decisions, it is unlikely that the agency can rationally conclude that future projects will have no environmental impacts. Moreover, given the severely degraded condition of many of our national forests, it is arbitrary to suggest that past land management decisions have resulted in limited environmental impacts.
Embraces condition-based management. This authority allows the Forest Service to conduct land management actions, generally timber harvest, whenever the agency encounters a particular environmental condition, such as insect outbreaks or high fuel loads, on the ground. Site-specific analysis would not be required. The agency would not be required to consider a range of alternatives to addressing the environmental condition, even though alternative development is the “heart” of the environmental analysis process.