Dec. 18, 2006 – The government rewrote the rules for managing forests last week, largely erasing obligations to consider potential environmental harm when planning the future of public wild lands.
The US Forest Service insists the new rule will make the land-management process more efficient and flexible. Environmentalists see the move as another blow in a series of White House-led reforms aimed at squelching public participation in the stewardship of national forests.
"This is yet another step to reduce accountability and to pave the way for more logging and more drilling by their friends and big oil and the timber industry," said Marty Hayden, legislative director for the environmental law firm Earthjustice.
The rule effectively shields long-term federal forest plans from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) â€“ the primary law that holds agencies accountable for their effect on the environment. When drafting overall plans for forest lands, the government will no longer be bound by NEPAâ€™s extensive procedures for assessing overall environmental impacts and considering alternatives.
"NEPA is about the government taking a hard look at the potential harmful impacts of its decisions on our environment," Hayden told The NewStandard. "Itâ€™s about ensuring the public has a role in that process andâ€¦ forcing the agencies to look at other alternatives to accomplish the same goal."
A sweeping exemption from a law that has given conservationists legal traction for defending wildlife and sensitive habitats.
The rule will not eliminate NEPA review for smaller-scale forest projects. But conservation groups say the far-ranging, "big picture" nature of forest plans makes them a crucial vehicle for protecting natural resources.
Forest plans are governed by the National Forest Management Act and provide the groundwork for a forestâ€™s future use and development. Generally covering fifteen-year periods and spanning the entire 200-million acre National Forest System, they map out areas for activities like industrial development, resource extraction and recreation, as well as wilderness and watershed preservation.
National environmental organizations like Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society say they are incensed but not surprised by the effort to curtail NEPA. They credit NEPA and related laws with giving conservationists legal traction against efforts to loosen protections for wildlife and sensitive habitats.
The law was pivotal, for example, in environmentalistsâ€™ successful legal challenge to the Bush administrationâ€™s repeal of the "Roadless Rule," a general nationwide ban on major commercial activities in designated nature areas. In September, a California federal district court ruled that the Forest Service had failed to thoroughly analyze the environmental implications of a repeal, as mandated under NEPA.
NEPA also opened a legal avenue last year for defending southeastern Alaskaâ€™s Tongass National Forest from the timber industry. A federal appeals court found that, when developing plans for the pristine region, the Forest Service had inflated its projections of demand for area lumber. The court decided the miscalculation and related flaws in the planning process had violated NEPA and invalidated the analysis.
The Forest Service considers the new NEPA exemption a "categorical exclusion." Technically, under federal regulations, the label enables agencies to skip the review process for projects with virtually no environmental impact. The administration has stirred criticism for broadly applying categorical exclusion to potentially harmful policies, such as forest logging projects the White House claims promote fire safety.
Forest Service spokesperson Joe Walsh said that since forest plans are basically broad 15-year blueprints, a detailed NEPA analysis might quickly become "totally useless, because the environment doesnâ€™t remain static." Smaller, more immediate actions should instead be the focus for oversight, he told TNS, because they will actually "affect the ground."
The Forest Service claims the new guidelines will streamline forest planning, shortening the process from more than five years to two or three, with follow-up reviews every few years.
Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst with the Wilderness Society said that while NEPA can be a tool in litigation, it also facilitates government transparency and enhances the public-comment process by forcing the Service to consider alternative plans favored by community interests. In the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, NEPA-based analysis and oversight helped shape the landmark Northwest Forest Plan, which preserved old-growth habitats within some 24 million acres of public land.
But for the rest of the nationâ€™s wilderness, Anderson warned, the decision to plan forest changes outside of NEPAâ€™s purview would be "the final straw in terms of trying to eliminate public involvement in national forests."