Forest Service could approve logging, oil & gas projects without public comment under proposed rules
Proposed changes to the U.S. Forest Service’s rules could make it easier to approve logging and oil extraction projects on public lands.
The Forest Service touts the new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) rules as a way to make faster decisions in worsening conditions on public lands. But conservation advocates say that the public will be shut out of critical decisions if the rules go into place.
“It shuts the public out of the decisions about public lands, and favors corporate interests over the public interests,” said Peter Hart of Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale.
The proposed rules, published June 13 in the Federal Register, change the thresholds for what projects can be approved without the full environmental impact statement or environmental assessment.
The new rule, which could take effect in 2020, expands the categorical exclusions, which allows land management agencies to approve projects without full environmental review, for a number of projects.
Logging projects on a maximum of 4,200 acres, or about 6.6 square miles, could be approved without requiring full environmental review. For comparison, the Sunlight Ski permit area is around 2,500 acres, and only about 700 acres is skiable terrain.
The logging projects would be part of “activities to improve ecosystem health, resilience and other watershed conditions,” the rule states.
Many of the new categorical exclusions would make it easier for local Forest Service rangers to clear beetle kill areas, conduct fire mitigation work, rebuild roads, tear down unused buildings and improve infrastructure for recreation activities.
Under the proposed rules, oil and gas extraction projects could also be approved without full environmental review under the new rules. The rule allows the Forest Service to approve exploratory drilling, up to four oil and gas drill sites, three miles of pipeline and one mile of new road construction, under the categorical exclusion.
“Across the board, they’re reducing the requirement that the public is engaged in these processes,” Hart said.
The full NEPA process often takes years, and requires a great deal of funds for studies. The new rules would allow the Forest Service to rely on existing scientific analysis to avoid redundant research.
The rules don’t prohibit public comment for the projects eligible for categorical exclusion. Additional public comment “is at the discretion of the local responsible official,” the Forest Service said in a fact sheet.
“Enabling the responsible official to ‘right-size’ public engagement to the needs of each project offers efficiency by allowing limited resources to be directed where they are most needed,” the fact sheet said.
The rules also provide additional guidance to “encourage early and ongoing engagement with the public,” according to the fact sheet.
For Hart, the potential for misuse of the streamlined approval has grave implications for the public input process.
“One of the things about NEPA is that it allows the public the opportunity to participate in the process informally through the first several rounds, and informally through the appeals process,” Hart said.
“None of those things require a lot of expertise — anybody can do it, you don’t have to be an attorney. But once you’re dealing with categorical exclusions, where there’s no public process, and you’re objecting to a decision, the only recourse is in the courts,” Hart said.
Wilderness Workshop is working on filing a response to the proposed rules before the public comment deadline Aug. 12.
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