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Forest Service Wants to Fast-Track Logging Without Environmental Review

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Forest Service Wants to Fast-Track Logging Without Environmental Review
Logging shown as part of a thinning and restoration effort in the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon on Oct. 22, 2014. Oregon Department of Forestry / CC BY 2.0

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.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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