The Trump administration proposed changes to a landmark environmental law that officials say would cut through unnecessary red tape hampering federal forest management.
These rule changes would help officials better manage forests and prevent catastrophic wildfires, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
“We have pored over 10 years of environmental data and have found that in many cases, we do redundant analyses, slowing down important work to protect communities, livelihoods and resources,” Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said in a statement Wednesday.
President Donald Trump took executive actions to encourage more active management of federally controlled forests, including increased logging, in the wake of 2018’s devastating California wildfires.
The 2018 farm bill also contained provisions allowing foresters to more quickly remove dead trees and debris from Forest Service-managed regions. Trump signed that $867 billion bill in December.
The Forest Service proposed Wednesday exempting more activities, called “categorical exclusions,” from time-consuming environmental reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was enacted in 1970.
Categorical exclusions exempt certain activities from lengthy NEPA reviews if Forest Service officials determined said activity would have no significant environmental impact. The Forest Service wants to expand categorical exclusions to keep foresters from getting bogged down in bureaucracy and litigation.
“We now have an opportunity to use that information to our advantage, and we want to hear from the people we serve to improve these proposed updates,” Christiansen said.
For example, officials would be able to more quickly relocate campsites to improve safety, the Forest Service said. Also, Forest Service officials could use NEPA rule changes to improve infrastructure, like forest roads, necessary to fight wildfires.
“Originally intended as a tool for environmental protection, NEPA has been hijacked by serial litigants and wielded as a means of obstruction,” Arizona GOP Rep. Paul Gosar, chairman of the Western Caucus, said in a statement.
Environmental assessments take 687 days to complete on average, the Forest Service said, while determining a categorical exclusion takes about 206 days. The Forest Service last updated its NEPA regulations in 2008.
NEPA reviews are also subject to litigation from environmental groups. Environmentalists generally oppose logging and other forest management techniques.
A 2014 study on environmental litigation published in the Journal of Forestry found “[v]egetative management, or logging projects” represented “nearly three times more cases than any other type of management activity.”
The Forest Service was found more likely to lose cases “where plaintiffs advocated for less resource use,” particularly in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where the agency won less than half of its cases.
“The new rule will allow for increased active forest management and help prevent catastrophic wildfires,” Gosar said.
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