The U.S. Forest Service is looking to trim the time it takes to analyze some timber sales and other projects by revising its rules that guide implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
The proposed changes, announced this week and described as “bold” in a U.S. Department of Agriculture news release, would add new areas for which shortened analysis, known as categorical exclusions, can be used and reduce the amount of public involvement for qualifying projects. The changes are being pursued to make the agency more flexible in dealing with fire-prone forests, mitigate insect and disease infestations and improve services such as trail and recreation facility maintenance.
“We are committed to doing the work to protect people and infrastructure from catastrophic wildfire,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. “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 National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, requires federal agencies to carefully examine planned projects to determine if and how they will affect the environment. The process can be lengthy, often taking years. The law also requires agencies to expose their decision-making process to public scrutiny and to seek public comment prior to making decisions on a broad range of actions.
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said the agency leaned on its experience to come up with the proposed changes, which have the potential to bolster the agency’s efforts to reduce big and damaging forest fires.
“We have pored over 10 years of environmental data and have found that in many cases, we do redundant analyses, slowing down important work to protect communities, livelihoods and resources,” she said in the news release.
The updates would give agency officials a suite of new categorical exclusions pertaining to infrastructure projects, restoration work and special-use permits. Under them, the agency could log as much as 4,200 acres within areas of 7,300 acres or less, build temporary roads as much as 2.5 miles in length or permanent roads as much as a half-mile long, without producing documents known as environmental analysis or lengthier environmental impact statements. It could also maintain things like roads, trails and bridges, as well as recreation sites and visitor centers, and issue permits to people or organizations using forest land.
Categorical exclusions generally are applied to actions that are considered routine and have few environmental effects. Although the agency would be required to notify the public when planning projects that fall under categorical exclusions, it would not have to give people a chance to comment. It would also not be required to do the normal spate of public involvement work on some projects that require a higher level of documentation.
Environmentalists say cutting public involvement will lead to projects that are less well thought out, and increased logging has the potential to foul streams and rivers and damage important wildlife habitat.
“It looks like it is short-circuiting the public involvement process, and what we have learned is that projects and proposals that have more public involvement, public engagement and public buy-in end up being more durable and broadly supported,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League at Boise. “By limiting public engagement, it tends to undermine potential public support for those very projects.”
He said in the long run that could lead to more litigation.
Gary Macfarlane of the Friends of the Clearwater at Moscow described logging projects of as much as 4,200 acres as massive, and said they would undoubtedly send more sediments into creeks and rivers where water quality is already not meeting standards in some cases.
“I think the American public ought to be outraged,” he said. “They are trying to take us out of our national forests and the decision making process. It’s gutting the National Environmental Policy Act and gutting public involvement. It’s not going to be good for fish and wildlife.”
The proposed changes are supported by people who want to see the agency be more aggressive when it comes to reducing the threat of wildfire and supporting rural timber communities. Brian Shinn, chairman of the Asotin County Commission, said he welcomes anything that will increase the pace of work on Forest Service land, and potentially increase jobs in the forest as well as at local mills.
“We are hoping they streamline the process in some way,” he said.
Lawson Fite, general council for the American Forest Resource Council at Portland, a group representing the forest products industry, said the changes are well thought out. He said they don’t do away with environmental analyses, but instead streamline the work.
“I think it gives us an opportunity to increase the amount of forest restoration and the amount of work,” he said. “There are more than 80,000 acres of Forest Service land at risk of (catastrophic wildfires) and 6 million acres in Idaho alone. There is a lot of work to be done and this is a step in the right direction.”
The agency is seeking public comments on the proposed changes. More information on the proposal and ways to comment are available at http://bit.ly/2ZopBpp.
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