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Proposed change would cut public input in Green Mountain National Forest



Addison Independent
Friday, August 23, 2019

If a proposed change in federal land use rules goes through, the Green Mountain National Forest could see a lot more commercial logging, road building and utility corridors — all without environmental review or public input.

“Basically, the rules would take the ‘public’ out of public land management,” said Jamey Fidel, Forest and Wildlife Program Director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC).

At issue is a proposal by the United States Forest Service (USFS) to revise the way it interprets the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is the foundation of environmental policy making in the United States. It requires agencies like the USFS to analyze the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions.

The USFS proposal would drastically alter the way it handles those requirements by greatly expanding the number and type of projects that would count as “categorical exclusions,” which can be approved without environmental assessments or impact statements.

Projects the USFS would reclassify as “categorical exclusions” include:

■ Commercial logging, including clear cutting, on areas up to 4,200 acres at a time.

■ Building new roads through the forest up to 5 miles at a time.

■ Reconstructing old roads through the forest up to 10 miles a time.

■ Bulldozing up to 4 miles of pipeline and utility rights-of-way through the forest.

■ Closing roads and trails used for recreational purposes.

■ Adding illegally built roads and trails to the official USFS road and trail system.

New rules also would allow the USFS to bypass public input on nearly every project decision. According to estimates from a number of forestry and environmental organizations, the proposal would eliminate public and environmental review from more than 90 percent of all USFS projects.

The Forest Service said it needs to do this because, among other things, the agency has a backlog of “special use permits or renewals” that “are awaiting environmental analysis and decision affecting more than 7,000 businesses and 120,000 jobs.”

In addition, such challenges as the recent increase in wildfires are taking up more and more of the agency’s resources and personnel.

What the USFS does not mention, however, is that according to the Congressional Research Service, the Trump administration has proposed cutting Forest Service spending by nearly $1 billion for fiscal year 2020, including a $654.4 million cut in Wildland Fire Management.

“This (proposed change to NEPA) is happening at a time when the Forest Service is slashing its own budget, and lacks the resources to evaluate what it’s doing,” wrote Sam Evans in The New York Times.

Evans, who works in the Southern Appalachian national forests, went on to call the USFS proposal “an attack on the very idea” of public lands.

“If the Forest Service has its way, visitors won’t know what’s coming until logging trucks show up at their favorite trailheads or a path for a gas pipeline is cleared below a scenic vista,” Evans wrote.

The USFS insists that the changes “meet both the spirit and intention of the NEPA,” but critics see the recent proposal as part of a larger trend.

Last December, after revoking permits that would have allowed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to build through parts of the George Washington and Monongahela national forests, as well as across the Appalachian Trail, the 4th U.S. Circuit of Appeals rebuked the Forest Service for granting permits that violated both the National Forest Management Act and NEPA.

The three-judge panel concluded that the agency had “abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.” Of particular note was the way the Forest Service’s “environmental concerns … were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines.”

In the Green Mountains

In Vermont, recent USFS projects in the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF) have sparked concern among a number of environmental organizations, including the VNRC.

“In the past, when the Forest Service has undertaken major projects on the GMNF there has been ample opportunity (in accordance with the NEPA) for public comment and involvement,” wrote VNRC officials in a May 3 blog post. “VNRC has participated in these opportunities and we have enjoyed a collaborative relationship with the GMNF.”

But starting in the second half of 2018, the USFS began limiting public comment on projects — one to conduct even-aged timber harvesting on 15,000 acres in the southern half of the forest, and another that would require dozens of miles of new roads to implement 9,630 acres of timber harvesting.

Altogether, according to the VNRC, “the Forest Service is planning to construct 84 miles of road (57 miles of new and temporary roads and 26.7 miles of reconstructed roads over the next 15 years) with no opportunity for public comment on the environmental impacts of these activities.”

The Green Mountain National Forest is one of only two national forests in New England. It was established in 1932 in response to excess logging, fire and flooding. As of 2011, the GMNF covered 821,040 acres, nearly half of which was federally owned.

The Addison Independent was unable to reach GMNF officials for comment.

The White Mountain National Forest was established in 1918, in response to unregulated logging activities that resulted in forest fires and caused damage to watersheds that were important to industries that relied on water to operate mills, according to the forest’s website. It includes almost 800,000 acres in both New Hampshire and Maine.

The Valley News was unable to reach White Mountain National Forest officials for comment on Friday.

Heather Clish, the director of conservation and recreation policy for the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club, said her organization is submitting comments to the Forest Service, urging them to reconsider what see described as “arbitrary” acreage thresholds for the categorical exclusions.

In the White Mountain National Forest, most if not all typical forest management projects would come under a categorical exclusion, she said.

It’s “difficult to believe that all forest management should be exempt from review,” she said.

Supporters of public and environmental review see the proposed NEPA changes as an attempt by the Trump administration to codify the Forest Service’s recent practices.

And many of them are fighting back.

Organizations ranging from the National Audubon Society to the Sierra Club to the National Parks Conservation Association are urging concerned citizens to submit a public comment on the proposed rule changes.

The deadline for commenting is Monday.

“Please make your comments specific and unique to your concerns and relate your comments to a particular national forest, like the Green Mountain National Forest,” wrote VNRC officials on July 25. “The Forest Service will lump together (similar comments) and count them as one comment, so please make your comments unique to be counted.”

According to the Forest Service website, comments may be submitted:

■ Online via https://www.regulations.gov/comment?D=FS-2019-0010-0001

■ By mail to NEPA Services Group, c/o Amy Barker, USDA Forest Service, 125 South State St., Ste. 1705, Salt Lake City, UT 84138.

■ By email to nepa-procedures-revision@fs.fed.us.