U.S. Forest Service Moving to Roll Back Environmental Review and Public Input

Townsend's Warbler.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) ensures there is public review of projects that impact birds, other wildlife, and the places they need. The law requires federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service take a hard look at the environmental consequences of their actions, base their decisions on accurate scientific data, and give the public a chance to weigh in before approving actions like logging, roadbuilding, and energy development. NEPA requires federal agencies to prepare environmental assessments or environmental impact statements to thoroughly evaluate potential harm to resources, and this analysis ensures they consider ways to address those impacts, including choosing different measures to reduce impacts. Right now, the Forest Service is in the midst of revising its NEPA regulations, with its avowed intent to “increas[e] the pace and scale of work accomplished on the ground.” Unfortunately, the Forest Service would accomplish this goal by removing requirements for environmental review and public participation, undermining this bedrock conservation law and putting the resources of our National Forests at risk.

Under the proposed changes to the current regulations, the majority of decisions would be made without any environmental analysis or public review, including high impact activities such as logging of up to 6.6 square miles (4,200 acres), and construction of up to 5 miles or reconstruction of up to 10 miles of roads. In addition, the Forest Service would sidestep NEPA analysis on even more activities by allowing use of older environmental assessments or environmental impact statements, even though they were not prepared to specifically address the proposed logging, roadbuilding, or other activity in question. The new regulations would also eliminate the requirement to provide public scoping for categorical exclusions or preparation of environmental assessments, which is often the only notice the public would receive and the only chance to weigh in before the Forest Service moves forward to authorize potentially destructive activities. Further, the Forest Service would remove the presumption that projects in Inventoried Roadless areas and potential wilderness areas require more extensive analysis through preparation of environmental impact statements, even though these more intact lands require more scrutiny—and, of course, often provide the best habitat.

A host of other proposed changes to the Forest Service’s NEPA rules all fit this theme: Approve potentially damaging activities in a way that totally avoids or limits environmental review, prevents a thorough analysis of impacts, and excludes the public from serving the vital function of overseeing how the Forest Service is managing these public resources. This is not how NEPA works and these regulations are in stark opposition to the letter and the spirit of this important law.

The Forest Service seems to have lost sight of its obligation to manage our national forests in a way that supports the many resources they contain, including birds and the places they need to survive. We’re working to remind them and you can too—if you haven’t already, please submit your public comments through our Action CenterThe deadline to comment is August 26.