The U.S. Forest Service proposed sweeping policy changes in June that would eliminate environmental review and public involvement for most of its decisions, prompting SELC and partner groups to submit formal opposition this week.
In comments to the agency, 177 groups said the proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would gut the nation’s bedrock environmental law by, among other things, allowing the Forest Service to approve large-scale projects of up to 7,300 acres, including up to 6.6 square miles of commercial logging on national forest land at one time without any notice or public input.
“Public involvement has saved countless acres of old growth forests, rare habitats, streams, trails, and scenic vistas by persuading the Forest Service to relocate or scale back logging projects, roads, and other infrastructure,” says Sam Evans, leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program. “Now, under tremendous pressure to meet climbing timber quotas, the agency wants to forgo those improvements and instead hide the impacts of its projects from public view. We won’t stand for it.”
Under the Forest Service’s proposed rule, the public would lose the right to comment on more than 93 percent of decisions affecting national forests and grasslands. Although the agency has stated that changes are needed to speed up project delivery, our comments point out that the Forest Service’s own data prove that projects developed using public input and transparent scientific analysis are actually more efficient on a per-acre basis than projects developed behind closed doors.
The sweeping draft rule creates new and expanded loopholes called “categorical exclusions” to exempt an alarming range of projects from public review, including logging, roadbuilding, oil and gas drilling, mining, and power lines. Currently, categorical exclusions are reserved for routine projects that don’t harm the environment, such as hiking trail restoration or maintenance on park buildings.
“This rule would streamline the destruction of America’s national forests,” says Alison Flint, Director of Litigation and Agency Policy at The Wilderness Society. “Under the guise of ‘modernizing’ forest policy, the rule would shut out the public while speeding up logging, road building and other assaults on wild lands that the public owns.”
While the Forest Service’s proposal would impact forests across the country, its effects may be most severe in the national forests of the Southeastern U.S., where western-scale timber projects are wildly inappropriate.
Before finalizing its proposal, the Forest Service must consider the objections raised in these and the tens of thousands of other comments submitted in opposition.