The Trump administration is proposing to cut down the amount of environmental review needed for many forest management decisions within nearly 200 million acres of federally controlled woodlands and grasslands.
In a sweeping set of proposed rule changes released Wednesday, the U.S. Forest Service is streamlining the steps needed to greenlight a number of activities on its lands, including the exploration for oil, natural gas, coal and hard-rock minerals as well as some types of logging and road construction.
The agency is billing the changes to the rules as a way to trim paperwork, grow jobs and — by speeding up approval of tree thinning or controlled burning on overgrown patches of forests — stave off the wildfires that scorched about 8.8 million acres nationwide last year alone. More than 80 million acres need restoration to reduce the risk of wildfire risk or drive back disease and bug infestations, the agency said.
“Because the effects of a changing climate, they're more prone to catastrophic fire right now,” said Chris French, an acting deputy chief at the Forest Service.
“We need to be able to thin or reintroduce fire into these forests in a much broader way,” he added. “We need to do it more quickly.”
Companies that manufacture paper and other wood products, which would have better access to national forests under the new rules, applauded the proposal.
“These proposed changes are overdue and modest steps to reduce the paperwork the Forest Service must sift through in order to manage the National Forests,” Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the trade group Federal Forest Resource Coalition, said in a statement.
But lawyers and conservation experts with environmental groups cautioned that the move is another instance of the Trump administration squeezing outside experts, as well as locals near national forests, out of the process of managing public lands — one that may lead to decisions detrimental to the well-being of forests and those living near them.
“Balancing America’s many needs and uses on our public lands is hard work, but it's the Forest Service's most important job,” said Sam Evans, who leads the Southern Environmental Law Center's National Forests and Parks Program. “Today’s proposal makes it clear that the agency is turning its back on that responsibility.”
The agency pushed back on that idea the public was being cut out of its planning process, saying that the new standards for environmental review still go above and beyond what other federal agencies do.
“These proposals that we put in here are either based on standard practice from other agencies or based on the analysis of our own work over the last five years,” French said. “So they're pretty reasonable.”
At times, the agency said, even a project as simple as repairing a parking lot can get tangled in a web of red tape.
“Right now, if we were to propose repaving the parking lot at one of our ranger districts, our current process would require us to take comment and to reach out to the state government and make sure that they were okay with us repaving our parking lot,” French said. “That's the sort of issue that got caught up.”
Under the new rules, which have yet to be finalized, timber companies will be allowed to cut down up to 4,200 acres of trees without having to go through a lengthy environmental review process, as long as the logging comes coupled with some sort of reforestation or other habitat restoration in nearby acreage.
So too would the agency be able to build up to five miles of new road through woodlands without triggering a review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“That's a lot of road,” said Ted Zukoski, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Roads are some of the most destructive things you can build through forests,” he added, noting that pavement reroutes rainwater and splits up animal habitat.
But formal evaluations of environmental impacts under that half-century-old law, often called a bedrock of U.S. environmental policy, can stretch on for years. Those delays can be costly to companies operating on Forest Service lands and have led to calls from many Republicans in Congress to change the statute.
“I’m thrilled to see the Forest Service taking such bold action to improve forest management,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), who has introduced legislation that would streamline Forest Service decisions in ways similar to the Trump administration proposal. “In the fight to protect forests against catastrophic wildfires, we should all be on the same team. I’m grateful for the Trump administration’s dedication to sound forest management.”
But Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, suggested the rules, if enacted, could backfire on the Forest Service. If a litigious member of public cannot weigh in during a public-comment period before the Forest Service makes a decision, they may try to do so afterward — by taking the agency to court, causing further delays.
“I understand the Forest Service wants to increase efficiency,” she said. “But they are certainly cutting the public out of the process.”
On Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) agreed that the new rules could lead to more lawsuits. "This is going to be, if it were put in place, a full-employment plan for lawyers," he said during a congressional hearing.
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