Federal officials are giving the public another five days to weigh in on planned changes to the criteria for when it engages the public about projects that affect U.S. Forest Service lands, like the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
The federal agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, proposed a revision to its regulatory obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act, which is the nation’s most fundamental statutory charter for protecting the environment. The law, known as NEPA, requires that changes to federal lands be assessed through environmental impact statements, environmental assessments, or that they fit a “categorical exclusion” to the act.
Under the proposal, national forests like the Bridger-Teton would have more leeway and be less burdened by paperwork when pushing forward projects. A pitfall is that the public would have significantly less opportunity to sway decisions and less information about planned projects deemed insignificant by federal workers.
“The USDA Forest Service last updated its NEPA regulations in 2008,” the agency wrote in an online fact sheet about the proposal. “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 our mission areas.”
Forest Service officials were unable to be reached Tuesday for an interview.
One longtime Forest Service watchdog who used to call Jackson Hole home was skeptical that the agency’s plans will hold up in court.
“It would keep a lot of lawyers busy,” Phil Hocker said. “What the agency’s NEPA obligations are is something that’s been hammered out in lawsuit after lawsuit, and the idea that they can make it up on their own is similar to a lot of other fairy-tale legal positions from this administration.”
The proposal would do away with almost all obligations for national forests to seek public input when projects fit categorical exclusions. Those exclusions, meanwhile, would be expanded to fit projects that would necessitate environmental assessments today.
“These changes will allow national forests and grasslands to concentrate resources on projects that are potentially more complex or have greater public interest,” the Forest Service fact sheet says. “Increased discretion and flexibility can result in more transparency, provide timelier response to public needs, and accelerate decision making.”
Advocacy organizations have estimated that under the current proposal, 93.3% of all Forest Service decisions will lose all the current advance notice and public comment requirements.
“No analysis; no public input,” Grand Canyon Trust employee Mary O’Brien wrote in a recent Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece. “You won’t be told the permit is being issued, and the Forest Service won’t need to write a memo or keep a file on the decision. The list goes on and on with the result that only 6.7% of all Forest Service decisions will require any public comment whatsoever.”
The Forest Service’s planned NEPA obligation revisions are open to public comment through Monday. Email comments to email@example.com.