Ag secretary orders environmental rollbacks for Forest Service

Ag secretary orders environmental rollbacks for Forest Service
© Bonnie Cash

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueSonny PerdueOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court rules that pipeline can seize land from New Jersey | Study: EPA underestimated methane emissions from oil and gas development | Kevin McCarthy sets up task forces on climate, other issues The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Georgia election day is finally here; Trump hopes Pence 'comes through for us' to overturn results Civil war between MAGA, GOP establishment could hand Dems total control MORE on Friday ordered the U.S. Forest Service to expedite environmental reviews on its land, paving the way for more grazing, logging and oil development on public lands.

The directive, announced by Perdue on a trip to Missoula, Mont., comes in the form of an unusual memo to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. He called it “a blueprint for reforms to further provide relief from burdensome regulations, improve customer service, and boost the productivity of our National Forests and Grasslands.”

The move could be welcome news in Montana, where the state’s ranchers, miners, and oil and gas workers have long argued for increased access to public lands.

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But environmentalists say the memo affirms a number of dangerous strategies already underway by the Trump administration.

“This is a roadmap to national forest destruction, and it’s painful to read,” said Randi Spivak, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program. 

“In the midst of the climate and extinction crises, Perdue offers a dystopian vision of expanding mining, fracking, logging and grazing in national forests. This will increase air and water pollution, kill wildlife and increase carbon pollution. It’s the extractive industry’s agenda on steroids.”

The memo, however, lacks the formal letterhead or signature typical with such documents, and mainly sets broad goals for the Forest Service rather than laying out any specific policy directives. 

Perdue’s trip to Montana coincides with a Senate effort to pass a major conservation bill, led in part by Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesSenate committee advances bipartisan energy infrastructure bill  Hillicon Valley: Lina Khan faces major FTC test | Amazon calls for her recusal | Warren taps commodities watchdog to probe Google Senators propose bill to help private sector defend against hackers MORE (R-M.T.).

Daines, who is battling former Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve Bullock65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal Arkansas, New Jersey governors to head National Governors Association Biden 'allies' painting him into a corner MORE (D) in his reelection bid, is considered one of the Senate’s more vulnerable Republicans and has relied heavily on land issues in his campaign. 

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“Thanks to @SecretarySonny for coming to Montana today to highlight new efforts to increase productivity and access of our forests, streamline environmental review, and improve grazing permitting. The @USDA and @forestservice are in great hands under your leadership,” he wrote on Twitter.

The recommendations align with other efforts already taken by the Trump administration and in some cases regulations already underway at the Forest Service.

The Forest Service is already in the process of rolling back its role under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which requires robust environmental reviews of any major action taken by the government on public lands. The White House is pursuing a similar rollback of the law through its Council on Environmental Quality. 

Perdue on Friday said the agency should “set time and page limits” of its environmental reviews.

“This is definitely a prelude to the stuff that’s going to come out shortly,” Spivak said, noting that the timing of the memo has political ramifications.

“Why are they doing this now? They’re waving the flag so to speak….I think it is electioneering.”