Forest Service favors reducing public input to fast-track projects
The U.S. Forest Service is creating more ways to approve logging projects without providing environmental analysis or public oversight.
A recent analysis conducted by WildEarth Guardians shows the Forest Service is bypassing much of the public process in order to push through an increasing number of large forest projects throughout the West.
"The acres are just staggering. We're seeing millions of acres excluded from sufficient analysis," said WildEarth Guardians Missoula spokesman Adam Rissien.
Rissien used Forest Service postings to tally all the logging and/or burning projects proposed for the past quarter – January through March – where forest managers had applied a “categorical exclusion” to avoid the public process normally required by law.
For just those three months, 58 national forests– that’s three-quarters of the forests in the West – proposed 175 projects that would affect around 4 million acres. All with a minimum of public input.
That’s what has conservation and public lands groups concerned, especially under the Trump administration, which has green-lighted several policies favoring corporations and extractive industries.
The National Environmental Policy Act was passed in 1969 with broad bipartisan support after Congress concluded that America had “overdrawn its bank account in life-sustaining natural elements.”
The law requires federal land and environmental agencies to do environmental studies of proposed projects and allow the public to comment on both initial and final drafts in order to “look before you leap environmentally.”
NEPA had such a beneficial effect that half the states created their own versions, such as the Montana Environmental Policy Act. But after a few years, industries started complaining that the process took too long.
So in the 1980s, categorical exclusions or CE’s were created to streamline the process for small projects that obviously wouldn’t have an effect on the environment. Examples would be repairing a Forest Service cabin or repaving a campground.
Then some people realized CE’s could provide a loophole. CE’s started expanding under the George W. Bush administration. Since 2014, two Congressional Farm Bills have amended the Healthy Forests Restoration Act to allow more and bigger kinds of projects to dodge the NEPA process. The Forest Service has created its own exceptions, with the latest one proposed in February of this year, and more to come.
In the 1980’s, CE’s for timber sales were limited to 10 acres to limit loss of old-growth trees and prevent the large clearcuts of the mid-20th century. But recently, the acreage limits have ballooned.
Logging projects intended to reduce insect or disease infestation or reduce hazardous fuels can be as large as 3,000 acres with some limitations. One CE created by the Forest Service for “timber stand and/or wildlife habitat improvement” has no acreage limit. Rissien found the Forest Service uses that for a majority of projects, and doesn’t even give a reason for others.
"Under this administration, there's really only one goal and that's measured in board-feet," Rissien said.
Rissien found, during the past quarter, USFS Region 4 - which covers southern Idaho, Nevada and Utah – proposed four projects that exceeded 100,000 acres each. One was 900,000 acres alone.
USFS Region 1, which includes Montana, northern Idaho and North Dakota, proposed 30 projects with CE’s last quarter, totaling more than 215,000 acres.
Region 1 spokesman Dan Hottle said the CE’s come in handy to streamline the process as the agency tries to function with severe Congressional budget cuts and staffing shortages. Especially when the USFS leadership has ordered that Region 1 log or burn at least 100,000 acres this year.
“The uptick in CE’s is not just the result of the current administration,” Hottle said. “We’re just deciding ourselves, as an agency, to use these tools to get more work done. It still involves the public, so we’re not circumventing the public process.”
Environmental advocates say it’s a matter of degree.
For scoping, CE’s allow only 30 days to comment on a project, and the Forest Service doesn’t have to take the comments into consideration. As a result, the public gets increasingly less say in the management of public lands, and that’s giving the logging industry more say.
Hottle agreed that CE comments don’t carry as much weight but he said district rangers have the discretion to upgrade a project to a full environmental assessment.
However, in May, Deputy Chief Chris French told regional foresters to use CE’s as “as the first choice and use whenever possible” and “accomplish forest health and hazardous fuels work in the most responsible expedited ways possible.”
Some foresters may be more enthusiastic or under more pressure than others to use CE’s. For example, the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest west of Missoula proposed almost half of the CE’s in Region 1 last quarter. It may be a portend for things to come as the Nez Perce-Clearwater has proposed a new management plan that opens up a lot of area to logging.
“They just have a forward-looking team that’s trying to find out how much work they could get done under the new plan,” Hottle said. “I wouldn’t classify it as “circumventing” – just side-stepping public process. It’s up to the district rangers.”
Rissien and others question how the Forest Service can know that such large projects won’t have detrimental environmental effects. By using a CE, the Forest Service doesn’t have to conduct an environmental study, so the public has no information to know if the forest or wildlife is affected.
Foresters can use “timber stand or habitat improvement” to justify any project, but they don’t have to prove how their actions improve things. And slim budgets means the Forest Service doesn’t have the money to monitor a project after the fact to show it achieved its promised goal.
Finally, environmental groups say a lack of environmental studies mean the Forest Service isn’t taking climate change forecasts into account. A recent Oregon State University study, in particular, identified mature forests throughout the West that shouldn’t be logged because they do the best job of sequestering carbon and preserving biodiversity.
“They conclude no extraordinary circumstances exist that could harm at-risk fish and wildlife, or degrade Roadless Areas,” Rissien said. “But we have to take their word for it since there is no supporting analysis we can review. It’s a black box.”
CE’s have one other aspect that favors industry: unlike in the NEPA process, there is no option to challenge projects administratively. That leaves only one option for people that participated in the comment period: a lawsuit.
And there’s a further complication: It’s hard to challenge a project that has no supporting documentation to find fault with.
While industry groups cheer because they blame environmental groups for slowing things down with lawsuits, other groups sue the USFS too, including recreational groups, timber companies and sawmills, oil companies, tribes and local governments and private citizens. All will be at a disadvantage, Rissien said.
"To say that 'We're going to subvert that process because of a myth that environmental lawsuits are hindering agency action’ - when clearly, they're not - is a disservice to the public, it's undermining environmental protection, and it's exemplary of an agency that has carte blanche under this administration to pretty much do what it wants," Rissien said. “When we see the egregiousness of how (CE’s are) being utilized, they're just inviting challenge because the abuse is so apparent."
Hottle said the Forest Service needs CE’s because it has to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk. But environmental groups point out it’s more effective for a cash-strapped agency to do projects closer to towns rather than in remote or roadless areas. So they question whether the agency is using fear of wildfire to drive timber extraction.
Hottle said the agency is trying to make the forest safe.
“If we can battle insects, disease and wildfire risk with proposals that don’t have to go through a lengthy public process, if we feel like we have buy-in from people, then we’re going to be able to do that without much interference,” Hottle said. “If that can speed up the process, we’re all for it.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.