U.S. Forest Service finalizes rule that minimizes public say in logging and roadbuilding in forests

In a last minute change before leaving office, the Trump administration finalized a rule Wednesday that will allow the U.S. Forest Service to log and otherwise manage 2,800 acres of forest in the West without an environmental review.

Agriculture Department Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement that the Forest Service, which he oversees, needs the rule change to “improve our ability to maintain and repair the infrastructure people depend on to use and enjoy their national forests — such as roads, trails, campgrounds and other facilities.”

But conservationists say the impact of the rule change goes far beyond a single parcel of 2,800 acres. The rule weakens requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that compel the Forest Service to study the potential environmental harm of approved developments and to publicly share that scientific analysis so the public can submit informed comments on the proposed work.

The rule change, which goes into effect Thursday, gives Forest Service officials broad authority to use loopholes called categorical exclusions to bypass NEPA requirements. Categorical exclusions are projects deemed to have no environmental impact, and as the rule is written, they can be applied across the nearly 200 million acres of forest that the Forest Service manages.

“We’re not talking about using the exclusion once,” said Alison Flint, a senior attorney for the Wilderness Society. “This is an authority that can be used successively over and over again throughout the 193-million acre national forest system and in wildly varying circumstances.”

Categorical exclusions are a “permission slip” for loggers to cut trees and developers to build roads without informing local communities of the work, Flint said. Forests are a source of drinking water for more than 150 million people.

NEPA “is designed to make sure the wrong things don’t happen in the wrong places. Today’s rule undercuts that role,” she said.

Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, took an opposite view. “The modest reforms in today’s final rule are badly needed, yet are still inadequate for the massive challenges facing the Forest Service,” he said.

Imbergamo said the Forest Service can use the categorical exclusions for land management “to chip away at the over 90 million acres of our national forests that are at risk” for fire.

It’s a common-sense step, he said. “Nothing in today’s rulemaking changes a forest plan standard or guideline to allow harvest on an acre that wasn’t already open to management.”

Fighting fires isn’t the Trump administration’s only agenda. President Trump is pushing to open public lands and oceans to industrial developers before President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January.

It is unclear whether congressional Democrats can reverse the administration’s final rules under the Congressional Review Act, as Republicans did when they controlled both chambers of Congress after former president Barack Obama left office.

Agencies must propose a change, submit the proposal to the House and Senate, which can approve or deny the changes. House Democrats will enter the next Congress with a smaller majority, and party control of the Senate hinges on two upcoming runoff elections in Georgia.

NEPA is one of several bedrock laws opposed by corporate interests that Trump has weakened during his term. The president appointed a new director to the Council on Environmental Quality, the board that oversees NEPA. The CEQ then struck down the requirement that agencies consider the long-term environmental effect of projects, while it also shrank the mandated public comment period.

In a summary of the change provided by the Forest Service, the agency said it is “amending its NEPA regulations as described in this final rule to make more efficient use of those resources to fulfill NEPA’s requirements and, in turn, its mission.

“The final rule is consistent with the Council on Environmental Quality’s intent to ensure that federal agencies conduct environmental reviews in a coordinated, consistent, predictable, and timely manner, and to reduce unnecessary burdens and delays,” it said.

Christy Goldfuss, who served as the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s managing director under Obama, said the Biden administration will take a hard look at any new regulations or rules rolling out between now and Jan. 20, when Biden is inaugurated.

“Any new implementing instructions that are finalized in these closing days will need to be closely reviewed, and likely rewritten,” said Goldfuss, now a senior vice president for energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress.

The new administration should provide “guidance up front” that it wants agencies to rely on long-standing policies that required them to take into account a project’s climate effects and its contribution to an area’s existing pollution burdens, she said.

“The new Forest Service policy is going to raise a lot of questions and create confusion,” she said.

The policy follows what Trump officials intended when they set out to implement the president’s executive order to streamline development by reducing regulations.

When the CEQ held a hearing on NEPA changes in February, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said NEPA delayed too many projects — for example, new schools on Native American lands and cattle grazing on public lands.

“The reality is that the needless red tape has, over time, lowered the expectations of American exceptionalism and excellence. And that is backward,” Bernhardt said.

Goldfuss criticized the CEQ when she spoke at the hearing. Removing consideration of cumulative effects of oil pipelines and other projects “will allow dirty fossil fuel projects to proceed without analyzing how they would pollute over time,” she said.

Sam Evans, a senior attorney and national forests and parks program leader at the Southern Environmental Law Center, called the rule’s focus on a 2,800-acre logging project to manage 91 million acres a “Trojan Horse.”

Evans emphasized that the authority given to the project can be applied anywhere in the forest system. Logging projects out West have less impact than in the eastern Appalachian forest, where ecosystems are more diverse and complicated.

“Even after the public overwhelmingly opposed this rule and spoke up for science … and accountability, the Trump administration has shown yet again that it will cut every corner to speed up logging and extraction,” Evans said in a statement.

“It’s hard not to see this as a broader effort to get rid of NEPA,” Evans said later in an interview.

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