Harvesting diseased trees, closing down poorly maintained roads, and constructing some pipelines in national forests would no longer be subject to National Environmental Policy Act reviews, the U.S. Forest Service announced June 12.
The agency says the proposed changes are needed to expedite the removal of dead trees and other projects to protect communities from catastrophic wildfires and other hazards.
But environmental groups worry the proposed rule would make it easier for the Forest Service to approve potentially harmful logging and road-building projects in national forests, while making it harder for the public to object or advocate for less-harmful options.
“Under this proposed rule, we can more ably respond to unprecedented challenges that result from catastrophic wildfire, extended drought and inset infestations,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen told reporters on a call June 12.
Environmental reviews under NEPA take on average 687 days to complete. The proposed changes would allow projects to get under way in half that time, the agency said.
“We do more analysis than we need, we take more time than we need, and we slow down important work,” Christiansen said.
The Forest Service wants to expedite certain projects on federal land and avoid environmental impact studies by expanding the number of “categorical exclusions" allowed under NEPA.
Under a categorical exclusion, the Forest Service assumes that all projects in that category have no significant environmental impact and do not need to be individually analyzed for their effects on the environment.
Some of the exclusions include certain infrastructure projects, construction and realignment of roads, and restoration and rehabilitation of land, Chris French, U.S. Forest Service acting deputy chief, said during the call.
“These proposed rules would allow the Forest Service to avoid NEPA compliance even where serious environmental impacts are likely to occur,” said Mark Squillace, a natural resources law professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Adverse impacts to endangered species would be allowed without notice or even a decision document.”
The proposal may violate the Endangered Species Act, he said.
The exclusions could also lead to more logging and road-building without sufficient public input, part of a Trump administration effort to increase development on public lands, said Pete Nelson, director of the federal lands program for Defenders of Wildlife.
“It’s clear that the administration is demanding more extraction and production from public lands,” Nelson said. “What you see is a policy shift making it easier for the agency to use abbreviated decision-making and analysis with limited public engagement.”
Shortening NEPA Studies
The proposal to exclude certain projects from NEPA reviews follows a broader Interior Department order to shorten environmental reviews at that agency.
The Forest Service, part of the Agriculture Department, manages land that often touches Interior-managed national parks and land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Those agencies together manage more than 600 million acres of federal land nationwide.
It often takes years for federal officials to study and weigh the environmental effects of energy, highway, and other development projects on public lands and waters as required by NEPA.
in an effort to shorten the NEPA process in 2017, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, in his role as then-deputy Interior secretary, ordered the studies to be completed within one year to comply with President Donald Trump’s August 2017 executive order mandating accelerated approval of infrastructure projects.
The administration also imposed a 40-page limit on environmental assessments and a 150-page limit on environmental impact statements under the act.
NEPA compliance changes at Interior limited the time needed to conduct a review and issue an environmental impact statement, but the Forest Service is taking a different approach, said Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center.
“What we’re seeing here is not really that, but rather a proliferation of a truncated NEPA process that is very limited on environmental analysis and almost non-existent on public engagement,” Brown said.
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