In 1910, Gifford Pinchot faced a momentous decision. As the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, which had been established five years earlier, he had to decide how to respond to news that President William Howard Taft and Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger secretly had cut a deal with New York investors to mine coalfields in Alaska’s Chugach National Forest. Pinchot was not opposed to coal mining per se, but he was adamant that his agency be involved in any such discussions and that it could reject any deal.
He felt he had no choice but publicly to contest the decision, because otherwise the Forest Service would lose its authority to sustainably manage the national forests. He knew he would be fired for insubordination, and he was. But the resulting public uproar stopped the mining operation before it began, upholding the principle for which Pinchot had fought.
His conscientious stand seems even more so in light of the Forest Service’s recent announcement of a series of “rule changes.” Do not be fooled by that innocuous-sounding concept. What the federal agency has amended will have a profound impact on its mission, objectives, and authority. These rule alterations will undercut its commitment to “Caring for the Land, Serving the People” and undermine some of the nation’s most iconic landscapes, including Nevada’s rugged Ruby Mountains and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, that the agency has protected for more than a century.
One key change the Forest Service involves the enforcement of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations that govern its decisions concerning resource extraction. Formerly under current NEPA, the Forest Service had to develop robust Environmental Impact Reports that identified the ramifications of a timber sale or an energy or mining lease. This report must be open to public scrutiny and the agency was required integrate the public’s concerns in any subsequent assessment of the relevant project.
As part of the Trump administration’s rollback of NEPA regulations, the Forest Service now has removed environmental considerations as criteria for decisions to approve plans. It has also sharply limited public input and thus the agency’s transparency and accountability.
Strikingly, the Forest Service and its administration-minders have taken these steps while celebrating NEPA’s 50th anniversary and the forceful role it has played in developing good forest management since President Richard Nixon signed NEPA into law in January 1970. The agency’s actions are striking, too, given Nixon’s argument that the “1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and our living environment. It is literally now or never.”
Climate change only reinforces the sense of urgency that President Nixon articulated decades ago and it illustrates why the Forest Service’s rule reversals will be so devastating to the land and the people who benefit from it.
Perhaps most troubling of the rule changes is that the agency willingly has deleted its consent authority over the mineral-leasing process. Until now, the Bureau of Land Management, which controls all minerals on public lands, had to secure the Forest Service’s approval before moving forward with a project on the national forests. No more: The Forest Service’s has hamstrung its independence of action.
Last year, for instance, the agency rejected a Bureau of Land Management-proposed oil-and-gas project in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains because it would have damaged “the traditional homeland of the Western Shoshone people who have strong ties to the Ruby Mountains,” marred the region’s “scenic, glaciated U-shaped valleys and mountainous peaks, alpine clear blue lakes, alpine vistas, waterfalls and hanging valleys,” and sullied hikers’ experience on the Ruby Crest National Recreational Trail.
In 2016, the agency rejected a BLM request for a copper sulfide mine that would have despoiled the Boundary Waters wilderness and Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. Without the power to say no, the Forest Service could not have protected these vital human needs and environmental assets.
This latter point is of considerable significance as the Trump administration has pressed hard for intensified drilling, pumping, mining, and logging. Each of these extractive industries operates on the national forests, of course, yet for now the Forest Service until now has had the power to veto projects that it determines, after scrupulous scientific analysis, will conflict with higher priority uses. By relinquishing its consent authority, The Forest Service has become a weak branch of the Bureau of Land Management.
It has also turned its back on the principle for which Gifford Pinchot was willing to lose his job. He knew that the agency’s integrity was inextricably bound up with the integrity of the manifold ecosystems it stewards. That’s what “Caring for the Land, Serving the People” means.
Char Miller is professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. He’s the author of America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands and Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism.