Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) on Wednesday finalized its decision to weaken environmental analysis of many of its plans, excluding a number of actions from scientific review or community input.
The new rule allows the service to use a number of exemptions to sidestep requirements of the bedrock National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), something critics say will speed approval of logging, roads, and pipelines on Forest Service land.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the changes “will ensure we do the appropriate level of environmental analysis to fit the work, locations and conditions,” arguing the streamlining could better help the Forest Service aid areas hurt by wildfires, and quickly repair roads, trails and campgrounds.
But environmentalists say the service is sidestepping analysis it needs to make informed decisions about how to respond to fire damage or ensure runoff from roads won’t hurt its forests.
“Those are really laudable goals, but the problem is it matters where you do things. Forest Service has no idea what areas need treatment or what kind of treatment they need until you do a scientific analysis,” said Sam Evans, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). “So cutting the scientific analysis and the public input of that decision is really wrong-headed.”
Evans sees the rule as part of a broader campaign by the Trump administration to weaken environmental rules in general and NEPA in particular.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality also finalized a rule this summer gutting NEPA and setting the stage for additional rollbacks at various agencies.
The Forest Service rule has been scaled back since it was first proposed last year, cutting the scale of projects that are eligible for the so-called categorical exclusions that allow them to proceed with little review.
But Evans sees that as an issue, incentivizing, for example, a pipeline company looking for an easement, to look for the narrowest portion of Forest Service land to cross, rather than finding the most environmentally-friendly way to do the project.
Several groups in addition to SELC have pledged to sue.
“The Forest Service just granted itself a free pass to increase commercial logging and roadbuilding across our national forests under the guise of restoration,” Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a release.
“The Trump administration is streamlining destruction of our public lands when what we need to be doing is protecting them,” Spivak added. “We’ll do everything we can to ensure that the public has a voice on public lands, including taking the federal government to court.”