By Anna M. Phillips / Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday announced plans to narrow the scope of a major environmental law, allowing the agency to fast-track activity throughout the national forest system without undergoing environmental review.
The proposed changes could potentially make it easier for logging, road building and other construction projects to gain approval than under current rules — and much more quickly. One of the revisions, for example, would eliminate the need to conduct an environmental study before allowing mining on land parcels up to one square mile in size.
To speed the pace of these activities, the agency has proposed exempting many of them from the National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark law that’s been in place since 1970 and requires federal agencies such as the Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct environmental impact reviews of their actions and programs. The revisions would also remove the requirement for many actions to be subject to public comment.
The agency’s plan would result in the first major change in how it administers the act in over a decade.
The changes are in keeping with the Trump administration’s belief that the greatest obstacles to reducing the risk of wildfire are bureaucracy and environmentalists. In the aftermath of the devastating Camp fire in California last year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke singled out both for blame and called for the federal government to have more leeway to cut down trees and remove dead vegetation.
Forest Service officials said the proposed changes would save money and reduce the amount of time it spends on environmental analysis at a time when the agency is increasingly having to devote more of its budget and attention to fighting wildfires.
Rules requiring the agency to conduct environmental reviews often add a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said in a call with reporters.
“We found we do more analysis than we need. We take more time than we need and we slow down important work,” Christiansen said. “Under this proposed rule, we can more ably respond to unprecedented challenges that result from catastrophic fire, extended drought and insects and disease infestation.”
Environmental advocates criticized the agency’s plan, saying it would be a boon for logging companies while leaving the public in the dark as to what’s being done on federal forest land.
“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.
The Forest Service is underfunded and understaffed, Brown said, which leads to long delays and backlogs that can slow projects. But overhauling the rules to allow for sweeping exemptions is not the solution, she said.
“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,” Brown said.
The agency’s plans include a proposal to exempt “ecosystem restoration” from environmental review. Among the activities that would be exempted is timber harvesting, or logging, which the Forest Service proposes to allow on up to 4,200 acres without an environmental study or a requirement to hear from the public.
The proposal would also permit prescribed burning, hazardous fuels reduction and forest thinning on 7,300 acres without environmental reviews.
Another suggested change would allow the Forest Service to adopt environmental review exemptions used by other federal agencies, which could significantly broaden the types of activities that would no longer be subject to analysis and public debate.
Christiansen on Wednesday also said that the rule overhaul would benefit people who use the national forests for recreation, as it could potentially speed road, trail and campsite repairs.
“This new rule helps us live up to our commitment to engage the public,” she said.
In 2018, the agency spent 57% of its budget on firefighting, compared with 16% in 1995. Employees previously assigned to other areas have been pulled away to focus on the growing threat from fires, which are only expected to become more frequent and dangerous as climate change reshapes weather patterns in California and the West.
“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,” Perdue said in a statement.
Aaron Weiss, a spokesman for the Colorado-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities, called the proposal, “a giveaway to timber interests above all else.”
“I guarantee it will be challenged in court,” he said.