The biggest threat yet to our most important environmental law

By: Jess Riddle, Executive Director

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The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is putting our wildlife, water quality, backcountry solitude, and public health at risk. It’s doing that by proposing sweeping changes to rules for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that would reduce environmental review and opportunities for public involvement in government decision making. The new rules would apply to every Federal agency, including the Army Corp of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, and the Forest Service. The proposal would affect every major Federal action, from dam building and fracking permitting to highway construction and timber harvests.

If this problem sounds familiar, that’s because reducing environmental review and cutting the public out of public lands management has become a new national pastime. An early rollback came in the March 2017 repeal of a planning rule called BLM 2.0, which had increased public involvement in Bureau of Land Management decisions. Then in August 2018, One Federal Decision, a memorandum of understanding by several Federal agencies, set new policies for environmental reviews of infrastructure projects. The policy put an arbitrary time limit on reviews and shifted authority from health and conservation agencies towards infrastructure agencies.

Many of you will remember that last June the Forest Service proposed to change how it implements NEPA. That proposal was so important for our local forests because NEPA is the big brother to better known environmental laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species act. NEPA cares about how Federal projects may impact air, water, rare species, soil, forests, and any other aspect of the environment that could significantly affect humans. It requires agencies to analyze those potential impacts, inform the public about their plans, and consider public comments. Georgia ForestWatch regularly files comments as part of NEPA reviews that lead to improvements in Forest Service projects.

Wildlife groups, conservation organizations, recreation clubs, outdoor businesses, and the general public recognized the importance of the proposed changes and submitted over 80,000 comments. The Forest Service is still analyzing those comments, and we expect them to issue their final rules this summer. However, legal challenges may delay or stop implementation of the rules.The recent proposal from CEQ is just as big a threat to the wild areas we know and love on Forest Service lands, but it is an even greater danger to government transparency and accountability because these changes would apply to every Federal agency and every major project. CEQ cannot change the law itself, but this obscure White House council is responsible for providing guidance to all agencies on how they should implement NEPA. The new rules would:

  • enact new highly specific and technical requirements for commenting on projects, such as Foothills, that would be a barrier to public participation;
  • replace language directing federal agencies to “encourage and facilitate public involvement in decisions” and replace it with the standard the public should be “informed”;
  • allow applicants, such as fracking companies, to prepare the environmental reviews;
  • and impact Forest Service activities from leases to meetings to watershed impact evaluation in ways that could make the Agency less aligned with public interests and less considerate of environmental impacts.
When analyzing the impacts of the Foothills Landscape Project, the Forest Service had to consider this thinning in the same area from the Sumac Creek Project. The proposed rule changes would allow the Forest Service to ignore such “cumulative effects”, which would also eliminate most climate change analysis for all Federal projects. Photo credit: Jess Riddle

The change to eliminate requirements to consider “cumulative” and “indirect” effects, which might sound minor, would even do away with climate change consideration. No single project is responsible for climate change, so climate change impacts would never be considered. This change would also mean that when the Forest Service proposes logging part of a watershed, they wouldn’t have to consider other logging in that watershed. Ultimately, agencies could avoid grappling with many severe impacts by simply splitting up large projects into smaller projects.

NEPA has been an effective tool. It has allowed the public to push back against bad decisions, improve planning, and reduce harms. In the southern Appalachians, it consistently improves Forest Service timber projects. The Southern Environmental Law Center estimates that in North Carolina one out of every five project acres was either added or removed in response to public comments. NEPA, as it has been implemented, promotes government transparency and accountability.

The deadline for commenting was March 10th. Industry groups spurred tens-of-thousands of comments in favor of the changes, but tens-of-thousands of people also spoke up to defend the environment and public participation. It will take the CEQ months to process comments, and litigation will likely follow. We do not know what the final outcome will be, but we seriously doubt this will be the final attack on environmental safeguards and public participation in land management. We all need to remain ready to speak for our public lands.

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