Lawsuit: Stop Trump administration’s parting shot at national forests

Conservationists challenge rule blocking citizens and science from forest management

Under the Trump administration’s proposed rule change, essential public oversight would be lost for nearly every logging project in the Southern Appalachian forests of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia. (© Charlie Rogers)

A lawsuit filed today seeks to reverse the Trump administration’s elimination of critical safeguards that have protected national forests from unneeded, ill-conceived and destructive logging, road building, and utility right-of-way projects.

The U.S. Forest Service – under orders from President Trump to sell more publicly owned forests for lumber – recently finalized a rule that would eliminate transparency, public input, and science-based review from many of the agency’s most environmentally consequential decisions. The changes are part of an onslaught launched by the Trump administration against the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

National forests, and especially those in the Southern Appalachians, are resources for everybody. But the Trump administration wants to give logging lobbyists louder voices than the rest of us.”

—Sam Evans, Leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program

“In short, the Forest Service’s rule allows more commercial exploitation with less public accountability, and that’s a terrible shift in balance,” says Sam Evans, leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program. “National forests, and especially those in the Southern Appalachians, are resources for everybody. But the Trump administration wants to give logging lobbyists louder voices than the rest of us.”

NEPA ensures that the people most affected by government actions, like roadbuilding, will have prior notice and an opportunity to raise concerns and offer alternatives. The act has also been a key target of Trump-friendly energy industry and logging interests that seek to put profits ahead of both the environment and the public. The Trump administration last summer authored a major and damaging downgrade of NEPA safeguards to favor industry over communities.

“The forests of Southwest Virginia are very vulnerable to being fragmented by new roads and utility rights-of-way,” adds Walter H. Smith, vice president of The Clinch Coalition. “Public voices and scientific studies are critical when considering commercial projects in our national forests, and taking away those voices takes away the best tool we have to ensure these wild areas are sustained for future generations.”

The Forest Service is the first agency to exploit those weakened safeguards to create new loopholes. The rule would severely restrict opportunities for the kind of public review that communities have depended on for decades to speak up for places they care about. Public involvement has protected thousands of acres of old-growth forests, backcountry areas, rare habitats, and clean waters. Many local economies depend on the recreational opportunities that draw visitors to public lands.

“Among other things, this rule would allow most logging operations to move forward without review, and worse, to stack up several small projects at the same time, all just small enough to escape environmental review,” says Jess Riddle, executive director of Georgia ForestWatch, who grew up hiking in the Chattahoochee National Forest and says it stimulated his curiosity, helped him connect with family and friends, and led him to see the value in protecting the plants and animals that call it home.

Adds Riddle, “The cumulative impact could be devastating to the Chattahoochee National Forest, and under this rule it could happen without meaningful public input.”

Under the new rule, the Forest Service would be able to exempt its entire timber sale program in the Southern Appalachian forests of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, from informed public participation. Similar loopholes have been created for road construction and even development by energy companies and utilities.

Along with The Clinch Coalition and Georgia ForestWatch, SELC is also representing Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, Chattooga Conservancy, Cherokee Forest Voices, Defenders of Wildlife, MountainTrue, Virginia Wilderness Committee, and Wild Virginia in challenging the new Forest Service rule.

“Forests, especially the national forests of the Southeast, are critical strongholds for imperiled wildlife, and are essential to addressing the effects of climate change,” says Peter Nelson, director of federal lands for Defenders of Wildlife. “On its way out of office, the Trump administration has attempted to roll back the very law that ensures the American people have a voice in decisions affecting our national forests and the wildlife that depend on them. We ask that the Biden administration create a new way forward for our national forests and uphold the original intent of NEPA.”

Separately, SELC also is in the midst of litigating the Trump administration’s changes to NEPA’s implementing regulations, which are themselves unlawful.

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