Our public lands and the environment are under attack once again. The USDA Forest Service is proposing revisions to regulations in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the first major environmental law in the United States, passed in 1970 by the Nixon administration. Broadly speaking, NEPA requires federal agencies to identify the environmental impacts of a proposed action on social, cultural, economic, and natural resources before making a final decision about proposed projects. It also provides an opportunity for the public to be involved in the decision making process. To put it simply, it’s the law that requires the government to look at potential consequences and environmental impacts of a project before it’s initiated.
The USDA proposes to add five new categorical exclusions (CEs) and expand the scope of one existing CE to its regulations for implementing NEPA. The changes include giving individual districts the option to eliminate public participation, and they close the window for outside scientific analysis for most decisions regarding US Forest Service land. With these changes, the USFS could build roads, expand gas and oil pipelines, clear-cut mass expanses of old- and new-growth forest (up to 4,200 acres at a time), and authorize mining operations of up to 640 acres, all without public input or environmental assessment. Could fewer regulations make recreational upgrades like trail maintenance easier? Unlikely, but even if so, at what cost? What the proposed changes will do is benefit large corporations by creating loopholes through which projects that should require greater oversight can be easily passed. The resultant habitat destruction is a no-win for the rest of us. What’s more, the proposed gag order woven into this has bigger implications by taking the public voice out of the decisions made for our public lands.
To justify its proposed rule, the Forest Service argues that these changes to NEPA are necessary to increase its efficiency and the pace and scale of land management decision making. However, according to a 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office, fewer than one percent of projects require the most time-consuming level of NEPA review. And approximately 95 percent of federal projects that require environmental review already qualify for categorical exclusions that allow them to bypass rigorous review. (Sierra Club)
Once again, the Trump administration is putting the interests of big business – oil, gas, timber – above those of the public with its relentless attacks on the environment and our public lands.
The public comment period on this issue expires on the 26th of August. Please make your voice heard while you still can by calling your Representatives and Senators and going to FederalRegister.gov to leave your comments. You can also use this tool created by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) to participate.
U.S. Forest Service (USFS)
From The Bikepacker’s Guide to Public Lands: The USFS was created in 1905, making it the oldest of these agencies. Forest Reserves, later renamed National Forests, were originally created to protect lands, preserve water sources and flow, and provide timber. In 1960, those purposes were expanded to include recreation, livestock grazing, and the protection of wildlife and fish habitats “without impairing the land’s productivity.” The USFS manages 193 million acres, or 8.5% of US land area.