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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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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