Greens lash out at plans to speed NEPA reviews

By Marc Heller, Originally published August 27, 2019 at E&E News

Conservation groups and scientists are bashing the Forest Service's plan to revamp the National Environmental Policy Act. (Photo of The Elliott State Forest. Photo credit: Tony Andersen/Oregon Department of Forestry/Flickr)

A Forest Service proposal to accelerate environmental reviews of forest management projects has generated thousands of public comments, including criticism yesterday from conservation groups.

In comments submitted to the agency, the Western Environmental Law Center and other groups said the proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act's procedures would diminish public input while opening national forests to "sweeping destruction" through increased logging, mining and other projects.

A public comment period on the proposed rule, available on the Forest Service website, ended yesterday. The agency had extended the comment period for two weeks at the request of stakeholders. 

"The agency has released a proposed rule that brazenly attempts to remove the public from public land management decisions, and seeks to expand the scope and scale of land management without sufficient environmental analysis," said the groups, which also included Earthjustice, the National Audubon Society and the League of Conservation Voters, among others.

Without a change in the proposal, the groups said, the issue is likely to land in court.

The Forest Service proposed the changes earlier this year, saying adjustments to NEPA procedures would remove obstacles to projects that boost forest health and wildlife habitat and improve recreational facilities. Reviews under NEPA often delay projects by a few years, officials and advocates for the changes say.

The Forest Service said the proposal would promote forest health and maintain public input while helping push projects along. The agency said it faces a backlog of 5,000 applications for special-use permits and renewals of existing permits awaiting environmental analysis and decision.

Among the proposed changes are several new or expanded categorical exclusions from NEPA, which would allow the Forest Service to proceed on projects with less-rigorous environmental reviews. The exclusions include projects related to forest restoration and resilience, improvements to structures at recreation sites, and conversion of forest system roads to non-forest system roads.

In some cases, the categorical exclusions could apply to projects up to 7,300 acres, a scale that environmental groups said is too big.

Environmental groups, as well as a group of more than 200 scientists led by the Oregon-based Geos Institute, told the Forest Service in letters that the proposal cuts out public input on the majority of affected projects.

"Yet again the Trump administration wants to roll back vital safeguards and curtail public input. This rule will make it easier to log, drill and mine our forests — actions that will be doubly bad for our climate by both increasing pollution and limiting our ability to reduce it. Our forests must be managed as part of the climate solution," said Kirin Kennedy, the Sierra Club's deputy legislative director for lands and wildlife.

The service received more than 41,000 comments on the proposal. Supporters, including associations representing sportsmen and foresters, said the changes would improve wildlife habitat and forest health. The National Association of State Foresters, which has called for more landscape-scale forest improvement projects, said the proposal works toward that goal.

"Expanding the type of work that can be eligible for [categorical exclusions] should save the agency significant time and funding which is currently expended on administrative procedures," the NASF said.

The Quality Deer Management Association, representing sportsmen, submitted comments supporting the proposed categorical exclusion for routine forest management activities.

"Forest management as we know it today has vastly changed over the past few decades," the group said. "No longer is it responsible to simply leave forests unmanaged or unmaintained."

 

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