Time to speak up for national forests, or see ‘radical turn toward secrecy’ on logging

You’ve probably never heard of a “Categorical Exclusion.” You may have heard of the National Environmental Policy Act, also known as “NEPA,” the bedrock environmental law signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970. It would make sense if you hadn’t. But I’d wager that you know a thing or two about the Daniel Boone National Forest, or places like the Red River Gorge, Vanhook Falls, or Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. If you do, and if you care about these places – or any of the 193 million acres of national forest lands across our United States – then now is a good time to get familiar with some of these obscure terms. Here’s why:

The U.S. Forest Service, under President Trump’s Department of Agriculture, has proposed major revisions to the agency’s rules for following NEPA. The proposed changes would end longstanding requirements that the Forest Service notify the public, allow for public comment, and analyze environmental impacts when approving logging, road building, pipeline construction, and a host of other activities across the U.S. National Forest system, including Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest and Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. This is a radical turn toward secrecy that benefits industry at the expense of the public.

Under the new rules, the Forest Service would be allowed to clearcut up to 4,200 acres at a time – nearly 7 square miles – for pretty much any reason, without telling the public or performing any meaningful environmental review. Their “one size fits all” approach treats Kentucky’s 170,000 acre Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area no differently than the 17,000,000 acre Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

The Forest Service already has wide authorities to sell timber. And in recent years, Congress has expanded the use of exemptions from environmental review under NEPA (those “Categorical Exclusions” I mentioned), especially to expedite thinning in fire-prone forests. Now the agency wants those exemptions – historically reserved for minor, routine activities – to apply to nearly all logging and development in our national forests.

According to the Forest Service, these changes are needed to “increase the pace and scale of work accomplished on the ground.” But these new rules won’t do anything to address the deterioration and deferred maintenance affecting our recreational trails, roads, and campgrounds, or save rare and imperiled species. This proposal is about getting more timber out of the forest, as quick, easy, and cheap as possible.

Public participation and careful, transparent planning are essential for responsible management of our public lands. And despite the professionalism of individuals, the Forest Service sometimes gets it wrong. When the Forest Service planned to log the forest above Climax Spring along with old-growth in Little Egypt in Rockcastle County in 2009, it was public participation afforded by the NEPA process that brought public concerns to the fore and led to the project wisely being dropped. When the agency sought to log 4,000 acres in Land Between the Lakes as part of the Pisgah Bay project in 2014, it was the NEPA process that allowed the public – including former residents, county leaders, and hundreds of others – to raise their voices and stop the controversial project. As a result, management at Land Between the Lakes has begun to move in a more inclusive and constructive direction.

And right now, in the Redbird District in Clay County, the Forest Service has plans to log more old-growth near the Redbird River. It’s a forest that the agency says is 65 years old, but is, in truth, old-growth forest with an abundance of trees 150 years to over 300 years old. And because of NEPA, and the process, we can tell them that. And they can make a better decision. That’s how it should work.

The Forest Service is taking comments on their proposal through August 12. Because, for now, they have to.

Jim Scheff is director of Kentucky Heartwood.