The Trump administration is quietly trying to strip public input from the decision-making process used by the U.S. Forest Service. Doing so would mean that logging companies could clear-cut at many as 4,200 acres at a time, and you wouldn’t know about it until you turned up at your favorite spot to find it decimated. But you have one last chance to stop that from happening.
“This is a speak-now-or-forever-lose-your-ability-to-have-input situation,” says Sam Evans, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). The organization has put together an easy tool that will enable you to participate in what’s potentially the last public-comment period about the vast majority of decisions affecting national forests. If the public doesn’t speak up now and stop this proposed logging rule from going forward, it won’t have a chance to weigh in when logging, roads, or even pipelines threaten the lands where they recreate.
Way back in 1969, Richard Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires all federal agencies to begin considering the environmental impacts of any projects they undertake. Part of that is a requirement to solicit public input and look for less impactful alternatives. NEPA is one of the mechanisms that makes federal management of public lands so much more robust and democratic than state management. Everyone with a stake in national-forest management, including local users, has a right to comment. And the agency is supposed to be accountable to those people.
NEPA quickly became an invaluable tool for the Forest Service, enabling it to make decisions with much more data than it could ever have compiled through its staff alone. As evidenced by the stories contained in the over 2,600 comments left on the proposed rule so far, public comment has enabled the Forest Service to better serve its multiple-use mandate, balancing the needs of logging with conservation and recreation. This is one of those processes where everyone wins.
But the U.S. Forest Service is chronically underfunded and understaffed—and that was before it became overwhelmed with firefighting costs (which currently account for about half of the agency’s total expenses). As a result, the Forest Service’s decision-making process has slowed to a crawl. During the fiscal years 2014 through 2018, the average time it took the agency to conduct the environmental assessments dictated by NEPA was 687 days. So the Forest Service started looking for loopholes that would allow it to circumvent the law.
This culminated in an executive order that President Trump signed last year, ordering the Forest Service to use “All applicable categorical exclusions set forth in law or regulation for fire management, restoration, and other management projects in forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands when implementing the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.” The order also instructs the Forest Service to create new categorical exclusions (CEs) to increase its timber outputs. And that’s exactly what it’s doing with this proposed rule.
As evidenced by the administration’s proposed 2020 budget for the Forest Service, it’s not actually all that interested in addressing wildfire. That same proposal slashes the total Forest Service budget by $815 million and reduces its firefighting budget by $530 million. The real impact of the executive mandate was to order the Forest Service to find or create CEs it could apply to those other management projects—pretty much any project the agency might want to undertake.
“This is part of the Trump administration’s agenda to be aggressive with deregulation,” says the SELC’s Evans. “Couched in the language of firefighting, the executive order is actually telling the Forest Service to expand its production of timber.”
And it turns out there’s one hell of a CE included in this proposed rule. If it’s finalized, commercial timber-harvest activities not in excess of 4,200 acres won’t require an environmental analysis anymore. In the past, any harvest greater than 70 acres required that analysis. Every single harvest has required both public notice and comment.
I’m sure you can see the problem there. Forty-two hundred acres is a very large area—more than 6.5 square miles. And projects of that size could be stacked near one another, effectively creating a larger impacted zone.
So in summary: the proposed rule would allow the Forest Service to green-light the clear-cutting of 6.5 square miles of old-growth forest without conducting an environmental analysis, soliciting public input, or notifying the public ahead of time. The proposed rule would allow the Forest Service to construct roads through that 6.5-square-mile area without an environmental analysis, soliciting public input, or notifying the public. It could do the same with pipelines. Heck, as long as a single project doesn’t exceed 6.5 square miles, the Forest Service will pretty much be able to do whatever it wants.