Environmental Impact Statements Cut from U.S. National Forest Plans

WASHINGTON, DC, December 13, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Forest Service has eliminated formal environmental impact statements from the process for writing overall management plans that are required every 15 years for each of the 155 national forests.

The agency said Tuesday that "writing management plans has no effect on the environment."

This determination qualifies the individual plans of each national forest for "categorical exclusion from individual study" under the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA.

Under the National Forest Management Act Categorical Exclusion Rule, forest plan revisions will now take two to three years instead of over five years with the previous rule, the agency said.

The decision came after what the agency called "environmental review" of the new process for developing and updating land management plans under regulations published last year.

Under the 2005 planning rule, full environmental analysis will continue at the project level, the Forest Service said.

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Worker cuts a tree blown over by high winds in Superior National Forest. (Photo courtesy USFS)
But it is the long-term forest plans, not site-specific project decisions, that determine which areas will be open to logging, off-road vehicles, back country recreation, and other public uses.

Incoming chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, said the decision chops away at public participation in forest management on public lands.

Bingaman said the even the announcement of the new rule was timed to escape public notice.

"Apparently eager to avoid Congressional and public scrutiny, the U.S. Forest Service has continued its holiday tradition of trying to bury bad news. Yesterday, just hours after Congress adjourned, the USFS issued a final rule that will eliminate environmental analyses and the publicís right to participate in forest management planning under the National Environmental Policy Act," said Bingaman.

The agency said the new rule "improves the planning process by actively involving the public at every step."

"The Forest Service first collaborates with communities to identify how forests should improve in the future," the agency said. "The public participates throughout the process as plans are refined and finalized."

But Bingaman said that under the new rule, "any update or significant change to those individual forest plans would be exempt from NEPA review."

Incoming House Resources Committee chairman Congressman Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, said the new rule is part of an ongoing Bush administration policy to reduce protections for watersheds and wildlife.

The timber industry generally supports the new rule.

logging

Slash left after logging in the Allegheny National Forest (Photo courtesy Allegheny Defense Project)
In a letter to the House Resources Committee in February commenting on a proposal to change the way NEPA is applied to activities in national forests, Associated Oregon Loggers spokesman Chris West wrote, "Current NEPA policies are outdated, are excessively costly, are inordinately cumbersome, cause endless project delays, and are unmistakably harmful to the environment."

"Many project-level decisions become so unwieldy under the weight of ineffective NEPA policies, that today federal forests are imminently threatened by serious problems. These problems include catastrophic wildfire, pest epidemics, storm damage, deforested landscapes after catastrophic events, invasive species infection, and spread of these threats to neighboring non-federal property," West wrote.

"These problems harmfully impact federal forest health, injure nearby non-federal property, and damage the economic and social viability of Oregonís rural forest businesses and communities," he wrote.

Environmentalists view the new rule as a part of the Bush administration's agenda of handing national forests over to big energy and timber interests.

Attorney Tim Preso with the nonprofit public interest law firm Earthjustice said, "This new rule is an attempt to hide the administration's plans for our forests from the public scrutiny required under NEPA."

"Claims that the Forest Service will take the required hard look at environmental impacts only through implementation of site-specific projects, such as timber sales, would shut the public out of the development of the program that calls for such timber sales in the first place," Preso said.

The long-term plans offer the only opportunity to take a "big picture" look at how the entire forest is being managed, instead of the localized look that focuses on a project area alone, said Preso. "That big picture look is critical for a number of wide-ranging wildlife species that depend on the national forests for their survival, including grizzly bears, lynx and elk."