Update — August 12, 2019
The comment period for this NEPA rule rollback has been extended to August 26, 2019.
Administration’s proposed rollback of national forest project analysis and public participation requirements means fewer opportunities for public to comment on Hoosier National Forest management actions and less meaningful review of these actions
In June, the U.S. Forest Service proposed changes to its agency rules that guide how the Forest Service analyzes logging plans and other projects on national forests. These rules also guide how public participation occurs in these forest management decisions. These environmental analysis rules are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), one of the cornerstones of America’s environmental laws.
The concept for NEPA was developed by an Indiana University professor, Lynton Caldwell, and passed by Congress in 1969. The law provides that for any major federal action affecting the environment, the proposal must be analyzed in an objective process that evaluates the environmental, social, and economic impacts of the project and compares alternatives that can accomplish the same outcome with fewer impacts or at a lower cost. NEPA also provides for meaningful public participation in this process.
For many years, advocates for more logging and other extractive activities in our national forests have sought to weaken or altogether bypass the review and participation requirements of NEPA. Just last year, for example, these efforts focused on both the 2018 Omnibus Appropriations bill and the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. These efforts were largely unsuccessful, so now the Trump Administration is proposing to weaken NEPA administratively with this Forest Service rule rollback.
How will this new proposal reduce your right to comment on Hoosier National Forest projects, and limit thoughtful analysis of their impacts?
Environmental analysis under NEPA occurs at different levels, depending on the overall impact of a project. The most stringent analysis is done in an environmental impact statement (EIS). The HNF’s 2006 Land and Resource Management Plan was evaluated in an EIS. The next less intensive level is the environmental assessment (EA). If an EA determines that a project will not have a “significant impact”, the EA is deemed an adequate level of analysis in a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). If the impact is found to be significant, an environmental impact statement must be prepared. To date, most projects to implement the HNF Plan’s vegetation management goals are evaluated in an environmental assessment.
A third level of NEPA review is basically an exemption from any meaningful analysis – what’s known as a Categorical Exclusion (CE). CE’s are used for categories of actions considered to have only a minor, if any, impact. Examples of these actions would be trail repairs, or repairs to an existing national forest building. There is virtually no analysis or public participation in projects that are categorically excluded, and in some cases there is no public notice at all that the project is taking place.
Changes to the Categorical Exclusion definitions are at the heart of the proposed NEPA changes. Very simply, Trump’s Forest Service wants to exempt more types of management activities from meaningful review and public oversight, including major projects such as logging, road building and herbicide use. By doing so, the new rules are equating the impacts of minor projects, such as trail repairs or issuing a special use permit to an outfitter, with the impacts of major land disturbing projects that impact thousands of acres, such as a commercial timber harvest.
• One proposed categorical exclusion would allow a national forest to exchange land with a state agency without preparing a case file, decision memo, or providing public notice. For Indiana, this means that HNF land could be exchanged for state forest land, with the former HNF land then being subject to the more intensive logging practices found on Indiana state forests.
• Prescribed burning – the use of controlled fire to restore or maintain certain conditions and forest types in a particular area – can be categorically excluded, regardless of the size of the area to be burned.
• Oil and gas exploration activities that last less than a year in time. These activities can include road construction, bore hole drilling, and seismic testing. What’s more, surface development activities for oil and gas extraction can also proceed under a CE, including road construction, up to three miles of pipeline construction, and up to four drill sites.
• Salvage harvest of wind, insect or disease damaged trees in an area up to 250 acres
• And perhaps the most egregious change – exempting ecosystem restoration projects of up to 7,300 acres from any meaningful environmental analysis. “Ecosystem restoration” may sound benign, but in the national forests it has become a euphemism for intensive management including commercial logging and associated road building. Within this 7,300 acre size limit, timber harvesting cannot exceed 4,200 acres of the project area.
One other change to note in the new proposal: under current rules, national forest managers normally solicit public comment early in the development of projects – known as scoping. Under the Trump proposal, the scoping process would only be required for projects analyzed in an environmental impact statement. Forest officials may choose to use scoping, but are no longer required to when considering projects that won’t need an EIS.
In the Hoosier National Forest, virtually every logging project is defined as ecosystem restoration. These projects also typically include prescribed burning, herbicide use, and intermediate timber management known as thinning, intended to reduce the density of standing trees and make the remaining trees more commercially valuable. Over the last 15 years, each of the major ecosystem restoration projects in the Hoosier National Forest have affected less than 7,300 treated acres, or 4,200 harvested acres, meaning none of them would have been adequately analyzed in an environmental assessment or been subject to meaningful public comment and review.
For the HNF, if these changes are approved, future projects with substantial environmental impact including every logging project may proceed with virtually no public input or environmental review.
Much of the push for weakening oversight of national forest management is driven by western interests who are using the threat of worsening wildfires as a pretext for increasing public lands logging that may have little impact on reducing wildfire risks. These industry advocates also claim that environmental review unreasonably slows down forest management activities.
Congress has already established a streamlined process for addressing wildfire risks, along with increasing the Forest Service wildfire suppression budget. And the Forest Service already has the flexibility to evaluate minor projects using categorical exclusions. So there is scant justification for the major changes being proposed. In fact, a thoughtful application of the NEPA process typically leads to decisions that are backed by science and have significant public support. On the other hand, when decisions are made in secret, and based on political considerations instead of science, they are more likely to be controversial, difficult to implement, and a more appealing target for litigation.
These rule changes are inconsistent with the intent and language of the National Environmental Policy Act, and represent a backhanded attempt to rewrite NEPA through rules changes rather than in Congress where any changes to statutes should occur.
Tell the Forest Service to withdraw these harmful rule changes.
Public comment will be accepted on this proposal until August 26, 2019. Commenting via the “public participation portal” is preferred – Enter “FS-2019-0010-0001” in the search box.
Comments can also be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.