Federal land managers on Wednesday will propose sweeping rule changes to a landmark environmental law that would allow them to fast-track certain forest management projects, including logging and prescribed burning.
The U.S. Forest Service, under Chief Vicki Christiansen, is proposing revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act that could limit environmental review and public input on projects ranging from forest health and wildfire mitigation to infrastructure upgrades to commercial logging on federal land.
“We do more analysis than we need, we take more time than we need and we slow down important work to protect communities,” Christiansen told NPR.
The proposed rule changes include an expansion of “categorical exclusions.” These are often billed as tools that give land managers the discretion to bypass full-blown environmental studies in places where they can demonstrate there would be no severe impacts or degradation to the land.
On average, according to Christiansen, it can take projects like these close to 700 days to approve. She predicts that time could be cut by more than half if the rule changes move forward.
“Let me be clear that the Forest Service will continue to deliver high quality, science-based analysis,” she said. “We’re proposing more efficiency, not shortcutting, in fact, [we’re] enhancing where we can, public involvement.”
Federal agencies have long complained of “analysis paralysis” when it comes to getting large landscape-scale projects approved. Policymakers frequently decry what they call frivolous lawsuits by litigious-minded environmental groups who use the courts to try to stop logging on public land.
According to the government’s own analysis — the last done in 2010 during the Obama administration — fewer than one-fifth of all timber and forest projects are appealed by citizens or environmental groups though. A bigger holdup is budget cuts, particularly in the Forest Service, where money has been diverted away from wildlife, habitat and forestry programs to pay for the skyrocketing costs of wildfire suppression.
The rule changes are subject to a 60-day public comment period. Barring litigation, which is expected, the Forest Service hopes to finalize them by summer of next year.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
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