Forest Service Proposal Would Limit Public Engagement

The Forest Service is proposing a major policy change that critics say could take the “public” out of public lands management. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in…

The Forest Service is proposing a major policy change that critics say could take the “public” out of public lands management.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970. That landmark environmental legislation has two critical components. “It is our national ‘look before you leap’ law that requires federal agencies to take a hard look at the environmental consequences of its actions prior to undertaking an action,” said Susan Jane Brown, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center specializing in public lands and forest law.

It also requires federal agencies to consult with the public before it moves forward with new projects. “Those are two pretty important aspects of a functional democracy and NEPA enshrines both of them,” Brown said.

If this change takes effect, the Forest Service would limit its application of NEPA. For example, it could consider things like the expansion of ski areas without taking public comment. That would mean projects like expanding Snow King’s boundaries onto Bridger-Teton National Forest land, which drew robust public input, might no longer involve the public.

It could also mean more energy development on National Forest land, Brown said. The Trump administration “has been very clear about its desire for domestic energy dominance and that’s generally translated into attempting to increase usually oil and gas, but also coal development on public lands and other things like uranium mining,” Brown said.

“This administration is definitely attempting to increase that kind of development on public lands.”

Brown points to another issue with this proposed rule. It expands and creates additional categorical exclusions, a type of “very minimal environmental analysis to authorize things like exploratory drilling or exploratory mining, which prior to now would have taken more detailed environmental analysis and public involvement.”

Forest Service officials did not return KHOL’s multiple requests for comment on this proposal. On its website, the Forest Service says it’s time to update NEPA regulations, which haven’t been revamped since 2008. The Forest Service also points to a need to streamline its processes. The proposed change will help it “make timelier decisions based on high quality, science-based analysis.”

This will ease the burden on a strained agency, the website reads. Extended droughts, insect infestations and diseases have made it harder for the Forest Service to protect people from things like destructive wildfires, the website reads.

The Forest Service is asking the public’s opinion on this rule change. It has extended the deadline for this until August 26.

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn launched KHOL's news department. She has worked as a reporter and editor in Wyoming for the last decade and her work has aired on NPR stations throughout the West. When she's not sweating deadlines, Robyn sustains her nomadic heart by traveling the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow @TheNomadicHeart

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