If you follow news regarding the Forest Service at all, you know that the agency decided last week to abandon its decades-old practice of preparing environmental impact statements to evaluate the environmental effects of its long-range plans.
Most in the environmental community are taking this new decision without too much alarm, though most are also somewhat appalled by the arrogance of the new move.
I´m appalled, certainly, but also a good deal more alarmed than most.
Forest Service long-term plans are creations of the National Forest Management Act, which came about after many observers of the Forest Service concluded that the agency was little more than an industry middleman, hawking the forests and paying industry to build thousands upon thousands of miles of roads, many in sensitive riparian areas. We paid for those roads thirty years ago with cash, and no we are paying again to try to close them or at least keep them in some tiny semblance of repair so they don´t completly ruin fish habitat and water quality.
These long term plans had two things going for them. First, they were prepared with large environmental impact statements which, if nothing else, at least recorded the state of the damage and provided a kind of history of whatever national forest they covered. These have become useful records over the years.
More importantly, though, Forest Plans contained binding standards and guidelines, which were limits placed on industrial activity in the forest. So for example a standard might limit how close to a stream logging could occur, or how much old growth could be removed.
But in the 1990's those limits, most of which were laughably favorable to industry, began to strain the agency´s ability to "get out the cut," as it was called, and litigation under the 30-year old National Forest Management Act began to shut things down.
The agency´s response? First, to get rid of the standards and guidelines in favor of a non-binding regime. If you read the current regulations at 36 CFR 219 you will see that these are now regarded to be "aspirational" and are pointedly not a "commitment" by the agency.
Second, the Forest Service last week dispensed with the EIS. Now these plans will be written under a categorical exclusion to an EIS or EA, which is to say they will be cursory documents with little environmental review and no obligation to be thorough.
The agency PR guys pretend that nothing is really changing, and that other kinds of reviews that they call "living documents" (read: will be changed whenever they prove to be embarrassing to the agency) will accomplish the same thing. I suppose it is pretty to think so, but the reality is that nothing will be enforceable in court.
The National Forest Management Act has been completely eviscerated--every tooth is gone, and the strength has even been taken from its gums. Forest planning, once a proud process that employed many in the Forest Service, has become nothing but a grand thought experiment that all may join but none will benefit from. And what use has the Forest Service for legions of scientists if there are no more legally binding requirements to protect water quality, soil productivity, and wildlife habitat? All those folks came on post-NFMA, and as loudly as they have all complained over the years about environmentalists holding their feet to the fire, that very fire was what provided their paychecks and reason for employment in the first place.
One last thing. Many environmentalists take solace that the NEPA will still govern site-specific forest projects. Some have even said that the loss of NFMA is not that damaging, since it has always been at the individual project state that we have stopped bad projects. These people are well intentioned but they are not speaking from experience, because if they were they would realize how insane that is. Bad projects have always been stopped with NEPA, it is true, but NEPA itself is practically meaningless without a substantive act like the NFMA backing it up. NEPA just makes the Forest Service disclose what they believe the impacts are. With NFMA on the books, the Forest Service had to disclose everything vis-a-vis what NFMA required.
To give an example, if a Forest Plan standard required that ten percent of the forest be retained as old growth, that meant that whenever the Forest Service wanted to log big trees NEPA required them to tell the public whether they were cutting old growth and, more importantly, how much old growth remained. Take away the Forest Plan standard and they don´t legally have to mention old growth at all. You can sue them for not doing so, but then you will have to prove yourself, with your own experts, that they should have discussed it. Good luck with that, because you will certainly lose.
It is a new era in forest management now. The court has taken away the underpinning of NFMA and the executive branch has swept away the rest, and we are back to where we were in 1975 in terms of forest management. We are going to need a new law governing National Forests, and I shudder to think how bad things are going to have to get before we can convince congress, once again, to rein back the agency.