Several Virginia conservation organizations have joined a lawsuit seeking to overturn an 11th-hour Trump administration rule change that eases the path for loggers and others to clear trees in national forests.
The U.S. Forest Service finalized a rule Nov. 19 that widened loopholes in the process for roadbuilding, pipeline construction, logging and other actions. The new policy allows more circumstances under which the agency can bypass environmental reviews and public notice, which are typically required for such activities by the National Environmental Policy Act, the federal government’s bedrock environmental law.
“National forests, and especially those in the Southern Appalachians, are resources for everybody,” said Sam Evans of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is handling the litigation on behalf of the groups. “But the Trump administration wants to give logging lobbyists louder voices than the rest of us.”
The Chesapeake Bay watershed contains parts of two national forests: the combined George Washington and Jefferson national forests in Virginia, as well as in bits of West Virginia and Kentucky, and the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. The Forest Service’s more than 3,700 square miles of property inside the watershed represents about 6% of the Bay’s total drainage basin.
Federal officials say the rule enables Forest Service staff to maintain and repair key infrastructure without facing time-consuming and potentially costly bureaucratic hurdles. Such actions will instead rely on existing environmental analyses, they contend.
“These changes will ensure we do the appropriate level of environmental analysis to fit the work, locations and conditions,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, whose department oversees the forest program. “The new categorical exclusions will ultimately improve our ability to maintain and repair the infrastructure people depend on to use and enjoy their national forests — such as roads, trails, campgrounds and other facilities.”
Among the more than 43,000 written comments submitted about the change, many criticized the agency for seeking to limit public participation in future decisions. In their description of the new regulation, Forest Service staff members wrote that the new approach amounts to “right-sizing” the public process.
“‘Right-sizing’ is well-known as management-speak for limitation or curtailment,” wrote Kurt Schwarz, conservation chair for the Maryland Ornithological Society. “In our experience, no federal ‘right-sizing’ exercise has ever increased a given activity.”
The rule significantly expands the number of “categorical exclusions” – actions that can skip the NEPA processes. The SELC lawsuit challenges three of them: logging projects involving 2,800 or fewer acres, roads constructed for any purpose of up to 2 miles in length and “special use” authorizations for private entities of up to 20 acres.
Critics complain that because the rule seems crafted mostly to address the western United States’ vast forests and grasslands, it puts eastern forests at greater risk. In the eastern half of the country, the amount of land set aside for loggers typically falls short of the new 2,800-acre threshold. That exclusion, then, effectively wipes out public scrutiny and alternatives analyses for those forests’ entire annual logging programs, they say.
Under the “special use” loophole, a company could construct 4 miles of pipeline through a national forest without undergoing NEPA-level scrutiny, according to the SELC lawsuit.
Environmentalists say they will be the ones having to foot the bill for such reviews, but many groups are too small to afford them.
The groups say they hope the incoming Biden administration modifies the NEPA change among its first actions. Among those opposing Trump’s changes is environmental attorney Brenda Mallory, President-elect Biden’s pick to head the Council on Environmental Quality, which manages NEPA implementation.
The SELC lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia by nine environmental groups, all based in the Southeast. Those headquartered in Virginia are the Clinch Coalition, Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, Wild Virginia and Virginia Wilderness Committee.