Presented by Sue Harmon of ForestWatch at Sept 9th meeting

ForestWatch and NEPA changes.

Good evening!  It’s really a pleasure to be here with you and to have the opportunity to share with you a serious issue that is happening in our National Forests today.  I promise I am going to be brief, but I am going to go deep and wide and get into just a few weeds, so bear with me, if you care about protecting our forests in Georgia.

So here we go.  Although we don’t have national forest lands here in Hall County, our mutual big back yard, the Chattahoochee Oconee National Forest is less than an hour’s drive away.  And it is mighty big back yard – 867,000 acres, larger than the Great Smokey Mountain National Park.  It is a global hot spot for several species of flora and fauna, think trilliums and salamanders.  These lands include the headwaters of several major river systems:  Coosa, Chattahoochee, Tennessee, Altamaha and Savannah.  Over 6.1 million people rely on these watersheds for clean drinking water. The economic impact of this forest is massive as well.  The outdoor recreation industry generates hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue in Georgia, some of which happens right here in the foothills of Hall County.

So…this forest, the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest is YOUR public land.  But who manages it for you?  That would be the United States Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture.  Their motto is: “Caring for the land and serving people.”  Currently law requires the Forest Service to serve the people by getting the public’s input on how they plan to manage the forest.  But often the public isn’t aware of what is going on and honestly doesn’t have the time or the technical expertise to fathom forest management projects.

That’s where Georgia ForestWatch comes in.  For 34 years we have aimed to be the eyes and ears of the public with regard to the management of our national forests in Georgia. Our mission includes not only monitoring how the forest is managed but also educating the public about what we learn and providing the public with the information they need to be a voice for sustainable forest management.  We base our work on the most current scientific understandings in the field of forest ecology.  We slog through hundreds of pages of Forest Service documents. We put our boots on the ground to survey management projects, old and new.  We collaborate with the FS on field outings, workshops, public meetings, and science symposiums. We try to reinforce the good practices that we see the Forest Service doing, and we offer alternatives to those practices that we find problematic.  We stay abreast of the law and regulations related to forest management and try to make sure they are being followed.

For all of these 34 years there has been one law, NEPA, The National Environmental Policy Act, that has supported our oversight work.  This law has required that the Forest Service be transparent and notify the public of their projects; that they make environmental assessments of the impacts of their projects, and that they consider alternatives that would cause less disturbance of the forest, while still meeting the goals they have in mind.

But now they are trying to change the rules of the game.  And believe me it could be a big game changer.

The Forest Service can’t change the NEPA law.  Only Congress can do that.  But they are trying instead to change the regulations that specify how the NEPA law is implemented.

The changes would gut NEPA’s basic provisions, facilitating a myriad of ecological disturbances, including logging and road building, with no input from the public, no environmental review, and no consideration of alternatives that might be less harmful.  So public concerns about issues like erosion, bird habitat, trout stream health, safe-guards for rare plants and animals, would no longer have to be considered. 

So let’s get down to specifics –, the “weeds”, if you will:

  • Public notice and environmental review would be cut for all kinds of projects:  commercial logging up to 4200 acres at a time; building up to 5 new miles of roads at a time; adding illegally created roads and trails to the official roads and trails systems; closing roads used by the public to access hunting, fishing, and hiking areas; bulldozing new pipeline or utility rights-of-way up to 20 acres.  To give a sense of scale  4200 acres of timber harvest would create a logging loophole so big that it would cover, in a single decision, almost 3 years’ worth of commercial logging at current levels on the Chattahoochee National Forest – meaning essentially that there would be no more public input or science-based analysis for logging projects in our forest.  Period.
  • Under these rule changes 93% of all Forest Service decisions will lose all the advance notice and public comment requirements they currently provide for and only 7% of all Forest Service decisions will require any public comment whatsoever.  Some of the supporters of this proposed NEPA change claim that the Forest Service has to gut NEPA because it’s being abused by anti-logging environmentalists looking for a way to sue.  But the facts are that just 2% of Forest Service decisions are challenged nationwide and less than 1% in Region 8, which contains our Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
  • The FS says they need these changes to cut red tape on routine work like re-paving parking lots. However, the FS already has those kinds of authorities (including re-paving). Most routine FS decisions (about 80% of all decisions) are already approved without additional analysis. The remaining decisions are potentially the most harmful and most controversial. These are the decisions at issue in the proposal, and they’re the decisions that need public input and analysis the most. Despite having the authority to do those kinds of routine projects, the FS often proposes bad ideas—like logging old growth, rare habitats, and steep, erodible slopes. This proposal would allow them to do the controversial, unneeded work without being held accountable by the public.

So what’s the public to do?

The Forest Service did provide a public comment period for these proposed changes (as NEPA regs currently require).  Over 30,000 public comments were received. At this point we are left with advocacy and, down the road, we will likely have to resort to litigation.

 It is time now to let our elected officials (from Congressman and Senators, on up to the Forest Service Chief, and the Secretary of Agriculture) know that we want the current NEPA rules to be maintained.   It is important to keep this issue before the public and our elected officials.

If you want to know more about this issue or other issues in our forest, subscribe to our email list via our website, or better yet, become a member!

So – there you go.  The quick and dirty lowdown on the NEPA rule change issue.  I have a few minutes to try to answer any questions.  Does anyone have one?

Thanks for your attention and thanks for all you are doing to promote good government in our community and beyond.

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