Deadline to submit comments is August 12, 2019
A proposal from the Forest Service to cut public participation concerning upcoming project decisions has the Chattooga Conservancy sounding an alert.
The organization claims the policy changes would cut out environmental review and public involvement for most Forest Service decisions, including logging, road construction and pipeline rights-of-way.
They say the Forest Service must legally consider public comments on this proposal, but if the proposal passes, this could be the last chance to comment on nearly all Forest Service proposals.
The proposed new rules would allow the Forest Service to authorize most projects using Categorical Exclusion (CE). It would also eliminate public notice requirements for CEs and Environmental Assessments (EAs). This means that the Forest Service could conduct thousands of acres of timber harvests with only a note buried in the agency’s “schedule of proposed actions” and post it online long after decisions have been made and shortly before implementation begins, they say.
Why is the Forest Service proposing this?
According to its website, the Forest Service last updated its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations in 2008. Since then, challenges like extended droughts, insect infestations and diseases have made the effort to protect people, communities and resources from threats like catastrophic wildfires even more difficult. Together, these challenges have strained available staff and resources across all its mission areas.
The Forest Service says the proposed rule will help it make timelier decisions based on high quality, science-based analysis which will improve its ability to get work on the ground done while meeting its environmental stewardship responsibilities.
They say the updates in the proposed rule incorporate lessons learned and experience gained from its staff and partners over the past 10 years and is the result of robust input from agency personnel, the public, and other stakeholders.
However, the Conservancy claims the proposed rule change would allow the following practices without public input or environmental review: commercial logging up to 4,200 acres; building up to five miles of new roads at one time, and closing access roads used by the public for hunting, fishing, recreation; and bulldozing new pipeline, utility rights-of-way, and other “special uses” that are up to 20 acres in size.
Along with excluding the public, they say these decisions could also be made without critical environmental review and without considering alternative methods to meet the same project objectives.
“The Forest Service argues the new rules will ‘increase efficiency of environmental analysis’ because it believes it is wasting time with public comments and environmental review. However, we know from experience that the Forest Service often proposes ill-conceived projects that include logging old growth, rare habitats, pristine wilderness, highly erosive slopes, and cherished recreational areas,” says the Conservancy.
They say it’s not the public that is slowing Forest Service projects down, it’s the lack of funding and resources to conduct the necessary level of analysis.
“The Forest Service must not be allowed to conduct controversial projects without being held accountable to the public. Now could be our last opportunity to speak up.”
Comments are due August 12, 2019. Submit using the guided tool at OurForestOurVoice.org.
By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper