Changes Coming to the National Forests

By John McFerrin

            Many, many years ago a coal operator in eastern Kentucky was quoted as saying, “Green?  You want green, we’ll just take all the money we’re going to make on this and pin it to the highwall.”  At another time and place, not quite so long ago, we had Forest Service managers who appeared to understand their mandate as “getting the cut out.”

            That was then; this is now.  We are all environmentalists now.  The law is different.  We now have the National Environmental Policy Act, that grand look before you leap statute which requires that the federal government consider the environmental consequences before it takes any major action.  If the attitudes of long ago coal operators and managers still exist, they now come dressed as concerns about efficiency, a prospering community, etc.

            The Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National Forests, recently issued a directive on Forest policy to the Chief of the Forest Service.  According to the press release that announced the directive, it will provide “direction that will serve as a blueprint to help modernize the agency’s systems and approaches to ensure national forests and grasslands continue to meet the needs of the American people.”  The press release also notes that under the current administration the Forest Service has sold more timber than it has in 22 years.

            In his directive, the Secretary directed the Forest Service to “focus resources on activities that support the productive use of these lands to deliver goods and services efficiently and effectively to meet the needs of our citizens.”  Under the directive, the Forest Service will:

  • streamline processes and identify new opportunities to increase America’s energy dominance and reduce reliance on foreign countries for critical minerals;
  • modernize management practices and reduce regulatory burdens to promote active management on Forest Service lands to support and protect rural communities, critical watersheds, and species habitat; and
  • expedite broadband development on Forest Service lands to increase internet connectivity in rural America.

The directive recognizes the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Forest Service’s obligation to consider the environmental consequences of its decisions, including what projects it approves.  The directive says that the Forest Service will

  • set time and page limits on the completion of environmental documents, including categorical exclusions, environmental assessments, and environmental impact statements;
  • streamline policy to ensure environmental reviews focus on analysis that is required by law and regulation;
  • work across the government to initiate the development of policies for alternative procedures to streamline consultation processes and environmental reviews; and expedite compliance with State Historic Preservation Offices for vegetation management and facility and infrastructure improvements

The language is sufficiently vague and bureaucratic that it is difficult to know exactly what it means in practice.  We all want efficiency, whether in our energy efficient cars or in pitchers getting the ball to the plate with little wasted motion.  When coupled with impositions of time and page length limits on environmental review, however, streamlined starts to look more like a euphemism for rushed and incomplete.

The Forest Service is a big organization.  It makes hundreds if not thousands of decisions each year.  Whether the new directive makes a difference depends upon how its guidance is applied to each of those decisions.  The Forest Service may perform careful and complete environmental reviews of proposed projects.  It may carefully consider the effects of energy development or timber cutting in the National Forest and make prudent decisions on such requests.

Or we may be headed back to the old days of getting the cut out.