Federal officials are proposing major shifts to the way land management decisions are made — changes that would make it easier to log national forests.
The US Forest Service is proposing to expand the types and scope of work that can be completed without an environmental review.
The agency says those are time consuming and the rule “reduces redundancy” when it undertakes projects similar to those it has studied before and make the agency more nimble when mitigating threats such as catastrophic wildfires and addressing “the worsening conditions” on national forests.
Environmental groups, however, say the rules will box the public out of important decisions that can be improved with community input.
“There’s no real rationale for it,” said Kabir Green of the Natural Resources Defense Council. There’s no real compelling evidence that they need to get rid of environmental review.”
For example, the size of forest that can be logged without the full environmental review will be expanded to 60 times the current limit, up to 4,200 acres. The Forest Service says logging under those rules must be combined with other projects to restore the area.
“It’s huge even in a western forest, and it’s just unthinkable in an eastern forest,” said Sam Evans of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Evans said the rule would limit public awareness in crafting Forest Service projects, which often improve with public engagement.
“The first time a lot of the public will know these things are happening is when the log trucks show up,” he said. “Public input isn’t always about the environmentalists asking the Forest Service to write more paper (environmental reviews) or cut less trees.”
The Forest Service said changes are necessary as its resources are depleted by fighting major western wildfires. “Wildland fire management” took up 57% of the agency’s budget in 2018, and the number of “non-fire personnel” has been cut by 39% between 1995 and 2018, the agency said.
The American Forest and Paper Association, a timber industry association whose members manufacture paper and other wood-related products, believes the proposal will make the Forest Service more efficient.
“This approach provides the department with the tools it needs to support forest health and help reduce materials that fuel catastrophic wildfires,” said policy manager Jeff Bradley.