U.S. Forest Service proposes to cut more trees by cutting public input

The Nantahala National Forest will be left vulnerable if a new rule to lessen environmental review for forest management decisions is enacted by the U.S. Forest Service. (© Jerry Greer)

Last week, the U.S. Forest Service proposed sweeping policy changes that would eliminate environmental review and public involvement for most Forest Service decisions, including logging projects, road construction, and pipelines.

The proposed rule includes a new loophole for commercial logging that would allow up to 4,200 acres—6.6 square miles—of clearcutting without prior notice or public involvement.

“National forest users—hikers, bikers, scenic drivers, and wildlife watchers—won’t know what’s coming until the logging trucks show up at their favorite trailheads, or until roads and trails are closed,” says Attorney Sam Evans, leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program.

Although logging is one use of our national forest lands, logging in the wrong places and at the wrong times can cause severe harm to other important ecological, social, and economic values. Those unnecessary harms can be avoided by considering public input, which is required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—our nation’s bedrock environmental law that ensures thorough public disclosure of federal decision-making, and allows the public to provide input on decisions that impact our environment.

The national forests of the Southern Appalachians are especially vulnerable to the proposed changes. Our forests are ecologically complex, home to countless rare species, and beloved for their trails, scenery, and solitude. Even small logging projects in our region often threaten old growth forests, rare habitats, and recreation.

“Most of the time, the public speaks up to protect these important values in our national forests and, as a result, they are protected,” says Evans. But the Forest Service’s new loophole would allow projects bigger than we’ve ever seen in this region. According to Evans, “the claim that the Forest Service can log up to 4,200 acres at a time without public input or environmental review doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

The Forest Service currently consults with the public for about 277 of its decisions every year, and uses that input to modify and mitigate impacts to old growth forests, rare habitats, trails, and scenery. Under the proposed rule, up to 75 percent of those decisions would be shunted into new loopholes with no transparency or accountability.

“Balancing America’s many needs and uses on our public lands is hard work, but it is the Forest Service's most important job.  And to protect what matters to the public, the agency has to start by listening to the public,” says Evans. The new proposal makes it clear that the agency is turning its back on that responsibility.”  

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