Forest Service Wants to Fast-Track Logging Without Environmental Review
The U.S Forest Service unveiled a new plan to skirt a major environmental law that requires extensive review for new logging, road building, and mining projects on its nearly 200 million acres of public land. The proposal set off alarm bells for environmental groups, according to Reuters.
The proposed changes, released by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), affect how new projects comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a decades-old law that requires detailed analysis prior to approval for any project that could significantly affect an ecosystem. One of the revisions, for example, would eliminate the requirement for a thorough environmental study before permitting mining on blocks of land up to one square mile in size, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The USDA says that eliminating some impact studies and reducing the number of redundant environmental reviews will allow it to repair roads, trails and campgrounds quickly. It also claims that shedding the red tape will allow the agency to take proactive steps to mitigate the threat of wildfires, according to the USDA's press release.
"We are committed to doing the work to protect people and infrastructure from catastrophic wildfire," said Sonny Perdue, secretary of the USDA, in the agency's statement. "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."
Environmental groups, however, quickly refuted Perdue's statement and criticized the plan, pointing out that the proposal will cut the public out of the decision-making process and damage public lands.
"This is clearly consistent with the Trump administration's desire to reduce government and to cut the public out of the process of managing a public asset," said Susan Jane Brown, an attorney for advocacy group Western Environmental Law Center, as The Washington Post reported. "To try to draw a line between climate change-induced wildfire and the need to cut the public out of the process of wildland management is disingenuous."
Environmental groups quickly spotted a new loophole in the law for commercial logging that would permit up to 4,200 acres of clearcutting, or 6.6 square miles, without any public involvement.
"It's huge even in a western forest, and it's just unthinkable in an eastern forest," said Sam Evans of the Southern Environmental Law Center, as reported by CNN. In a statement he said the idea that clearcutting 4,200 acres without ecological harm doesn't pass the laugh test.
He noted that when there is transparency and accountability, the public has the opportunity to stand up for its ecological values. However, with the new proposal, "National Forest users — hikers, bikers, and wildlife watchers — won't know what's coming until the logging trucks show up at their favorite trailheads, or until roads and trails are closed," Evans said in a press release.
The proposal would also allow the forest service to build five miles of new roads through woodlands without a mandatory NEPA review.
"That's a lot of road," said Ted Zukoski, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, as reported by The Washington Post. "Roads are some of the most destructive things you can build through forests." He added that pavement affects where rainwater flows and it cleaves its way through animal habitats.
Susan Jane Brown pointed out that if the Forest Service wants to fast-track mining and road permits, this proposal will have the opposite effect, since it will force environmental groups to tie projects up in court, according to The Washington Post.
"This is going to be, if it were put in place, a full-employment plan for lawyers," said Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) during a congressional hearing, as The Washington Post reported.
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