The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service is proposing a radical overhaul on its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations to expedite various forest management activities. The move is purportedly being made to address critical forest health needs in a timely manner amid the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires across the West.
Passed in 1969 in response to environmental concerns with population growth, high-density urbanization, industrial expansion, agricultural pollution and resource exploitation across the country, NEPA requires any operations on federal land to include assessments for potential environmental impacts.
For a forest-thinning project on thousands of acres, for instance, that might include surveying for impacts on wildlife, plants and cultural resources. The idea is to enforce “early consideration of environmental impacts, in an open manner, with meaningful public participation.”
Forest Service officials at the top of the chain have said that the latest proposed amendments would reduce costly, time-consuming and “redundant” environmental analyses, but conservation groups claim that the revisions weaken environmental protections substantially and limit public input on forest management projects.
“We are committed to doing the work to protect people and infrastructure from catastrophic wildfire,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, as quoted in a June 12 press release. “With millions of acres in need of treatment, years of costly analysis and delays are not an acceptable solution – especially when data and experience show us we can get this work done with strong environmental protection standards as well as protect communities, livelihoods and resources.”
The revisions are based on 10 years of “intensive analysis of hundreds of environmental assessments and related data (that), when fully implemented, will reduce process delays for routine activities by months or years,” the release states.
Since the most recent NEPA updates were made in 2008, drought, bark beetle infestations and disease have strained available staff and resources across all of the Forest Service’s mission areas, according to the USDA Forest Service website.
Over the past 20 years, monies appropriated to the agency for forest, watershed and range restoration projects have been increasingly diverted to wildfire suppression.
In 2018, 57% of the Forest Service budget was spent on wildland fire management – a 41% increase since 1995.
The 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act will provide a nearly $2 billion contingency fund for Forest Service wildfire suppression activities for the next decade, effective Jan. 1, 2020.
That’s well above the current 10-year average for the agency’s fire suppression spending.
While a funding source may be addressed with the bill, delays in environmental review processes remain a challenge.
“There’s a legitimate concern that environmental planning as currently managed does often take longer than is desired, and looking for ways to shortcut the lengthy time period while still producing quality analysis is the challenge,” said John Buckley, director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, a Twain-Harte-based environmental nonprofit. “It’s unfortunate that this proposal has thrown in every possible wish list for special interests who would like to weaken the public’s ability to help shape management on their lands.”
Buckley said the proposed update, a 16-page document in the Federal Register, includes the broadest set of recommended policy changes he’s seen during his career in conservation work. He’s concerned that they could open the door for mining and logging on public lands without any “meaningful opportunity for public input.”
An expansion of the “categorical exclusions” classification under NEPA is intended to improve forest conditions and make it easier to maintain and repair roads, trails, campgrounds and other facilities. They would also be used to allow special use authorizations that issue permits for outfitters and guides, community organizations, civic groups and other recreationalists. Categorical exclusions allow land managers to circumvent environmental analyses on project areas, and in some cases, curtail chances for public input on projects. And there are a lot of them in these revisions.
“Under the proposed revisions, some project activities would be classified as ‘restoration’ projects, which sounds nice,” Buckley said. “But in reality, for example, under the new rules, commercial logging could cut trees across nearly seven square miles of national forest land (4,300 acres) with the Forest Service approving the logging project without preparing the normal environmental assessment that would at least consider reasonable alternatives and require measures to avoid significant impacts. Categorical Exclusions could now also be used to approve the construction of up to 0.5 miles of permanent road and up to 2.5 miles of ‘temporary’ roads without requiring any normal analysis.”
Buckley was also concerned with a section indicating that a “decision memo” written by a Forest Service official alone, could authorize activities like road-building, logging, new construction of buildings or vegetation-clearing without public input.
Under a proposal for “condition-based management,” the agency could potentially approve logging without surveying for rare wildlife or plants in a proposed project area to determine whether they would be impacted, he added.
“Lots of the rhetoric surrounding these changes make it appear that they will help correct conditions that result in significant wildfires or insect attacks in forests,” Buckley said. “Gutting environmental measures has little to do with getting important work done on federal lands ... But getting rid of many environmental regulations has been the mantra for the current president and the current administration – and these revisions reflect that pro-use point of view.”
The proposed update is open for public comment for 60 days after the June 12 publication in the Federal Register. Visit bit.ly/2ZzBvg9 to submit a comment.