To facilitate the fabrication of stumps, roads, and erosion in America’s National Forests, now the Trump administration has proposed to alter the USDA Forest Service’s [USFS] implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA]. The 1969 NEPA was specifically designed to achieve three main things: 1) require agencies like the Forest Service to use science to take a full and fair hard look at the potential environmental impacts of projects such as timber sales, 2) clearly disclose to the public this scientific information and the reasoning underlying their decisions, and 3) provide a clear legal mechanism for you, me, and all Americans to be meaningfully involved in the decision-making process on our National Forests and other public lands.
This power-grab by the Trump administration would trash all three of the NEPA’s fundamental goals. One of the ways they intend to circumvent NEPA and increase logging is by drastically expanding the use of the “Categorical Exclusion [CE]”. CEs were originally concocted for small projects such as building a privy at a campground where it makes sense not to obtain public comment or spend time and money analyzing. Over the years, the USFS has gradually expanded the number and kinds of projects that fit into categories for which analysis is pre-emptively excluded. The USFS says that this new proposal would cover fully ¾ of their decisions.
If a proposed project fits into one of the agency’s predefined categories, here’s how CEs work: “There aren’t any significant impacts because we say so.” All impacts – direct, indirect, and cumulative – categorically dismissed and not fully and fairly analysed and disclosed. The proposal also eliminates the process called “scoping” for CE projects, meaning that the agency does not even have to notify the public of its plans.
This proposed new CE could be used to authorize individual projects affecting up to 7,300 acres, of which up to 4,200 acres may be commercial logging. That’s right, this CE could be used to authorize 6.6 square miles of clearcuts in a single project. In other words, an entire year’s worth of logging on a National Forest could occur without in-depth analysis or public involvement.
This proposal would also make it easier to force commercial logging by greenwashing it as “restoration” or “wildlife habitat improvement” or “fuels reduction”. It weakens “Extraordinary Circumstances”, things like the presence of rare species, that would in the past have prevented the agency from using a CE. It allows destructive projects in Inventoried Roadless Areas without an EIS. New and expanded CEs would allow the agency to smash 5 miles of new roads at a time through a National Forest without analysis. Projects that somehow do not qualify for use of a CE can be segmented into multiple actions and then a CE used for each of them. This is just a partial list of the provisions; it gets worse, read it for yourself here.
Americans have been fighting the Forest Service-abetted destruction of our homelands for decades; this is just the latest assault on our natural heritage and our basic rights and freedoms. It’s time to put an end to the endless war inflicted upon our National Forests and other public lands. When National Forests were first set aside, the US population was only a third of what it is now. Over time, the USFS has been captured by the very exploiters and profiteers that laws like the NEPA were designed to help protect us from. New land isn’t being created while we sleep, so the inescapable result is fewer and smaller intact wild places, occupying a miniscule proportion of the overall landscape.
This extremist proposal makes it clear that Americans and our National Forests urgently need a new legal framework. One that puts an end to the looting of the shared commonwealth. Permanently. By this I mean new legislation and policies that free the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management from the internal and external pressures that constantly promote and prioritize commercial logging and other extraction and exploitation. Instead, the focus must be on real protection, not pandering to exploiters. Promoting the critical importance of old and dead trees, wilderness, natural disturbances, and limited roads to healthy forests.
It makes sense on our National Forests to allow existing forests to achieve their biological potential and develop into their natural old growth state. Such pro-forestation is the best way to combat climate chaos (through carbon sequestration) and achieve multiple goals, such as biodiversity conservation, socioeconomic benefits, food security, recreation, and ecosystem services.
In the meantime, Americans, including members of Congress, need to step up and stop this NEPA proposal dead in its tracks. We can comment until Aug. 26 at https://www.regulations.gov/ or firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find more information, including summaries of the proposed changes, an outline of “talking points” and how to send comments, on both Tennessee Heartwood’s and Kentucky Heartwood’s websites.
Steven Krichbaum, PhD, is a conservation biologist and has been a forest protection activist with grassroots groups for 30 years.