ACRAMENTO, Aug. 27, 2019 – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, leading a coalition of five attorneys general, filed a comment letter with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (Forest Service) regarding its unlawful proposal to roll back environmental review and public participation requirements for actions on National Forest lands. In particular, the proposed rule would undermine key elements of the agency’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations designed to ensure that the vast majority of Forest Service actions are subject to public participation and disclosure, as well as essential environmental reviews for actions that may have significant impacts. Safeguarding these protections and preserving public participation is of paramount importance to California, where the Forest Service administers nearly 20 percent of all land. These areas are home to numerous imperiled species such as the California condor, bighorn sheep, and Pacific fisher, and include numerous scenic and ecologically important sites such as Mt. Shasta, the Lake Tahoe basin, Mt. Whitney, and the Giant Sequoia National Monument.
“This proposed rule is a blatant attempt by the Trump Administration to rip out the backbone of our conservation laws in order to fast-track commercial projects on our National Forest land,” said Attorney General Becerra. “These treasured public lands must be preserved for the safety and use of future generations, not stripped for profit. We will not stand idle as environmental protections of our National Forests are sidestepped and the public is cut out of the process. We’ll fight to protect our National Forests, our environment, and the people of California.”
The coalition of attorneys general are asserting that the proposed rule is arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act by eliminating public input for almost all Forest Service actions, contradicting NEPA’s purposes, and lacking a reasoned basis. Specifically the rule is unlawful because it:
- Severely reduces public input by eliminating “scoping” for projects that do not require an environmental impact statement (EIS), or nearly all of Forest Service actions;
- Illogically and illegally expands the number of categorical exclusions under the presumption that environmental analysis is unnecessary, including for projects such as construction of up to five miles of road or commercial timber harvests of up to 4,200 acres;
- Lacks a reasoned explanation for removing the presence of sensitive species from the list of extraordinary circumstances barring the use of a categorical exception;
- Discards actions that alter roadless and wilderness areas from the list of actions requiring preparation of an EIS without logical explanation;
- Allows a previous NEPA analysis to satisfy NEPA requirements for a new project, without site-specific review, study of cumulative impacts, or public participation;
- Ignores the impacts of climate change, including climate-fueled fires and the contribution of greenhouse gas emissions to the current climate crisis; and
- Exempts itself from any NEPA documentation prior to the issuance of any final rule.
While the Forest Service claims that these changes are needed to “increase efficiency” given the increased resources spent on wildfire suppression, the proposed rule does nothing to address the threats posed by climate change or provide an approach that would actually protect communities from increased wildfire risk. Moreover, all of these changes would undercut NEPA’s intended purposes of providing for public participation to ensure that federal agencies take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of their actions before those actions occur.
Joining Attorney General Becerra in filing the comment letter are the attorneys general of Colorado, Illinois, New York, and Vermont.
A copy of the comment letter can be found here.