Taking the “Public” out of Public Lands?


If a proposed change in federal land use rules goes through, the nearly 400,000 acres of Green Mountain National Forest that are federally managed 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 five miles at a time.
• Reconstructing old roads through the forest up to 10 miles a time.
• Bulldozing up to four 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.

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.

Both the environmental assessment and environmental impact statement processes require that the public be notified that the project under review has been proposed and offered input during the process. No such scoping period is required for projects deemed categorically exempt.

According to the USFS, the average environmental assessment takes 687 days to complete and the average time required to process a project that is categorically exempt is 206 days.       

Photo Caption: Canoeing on Grout Pond in the Green Mountain National Forest in Stratton, Vermont.

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