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Conservation Groups Cry Foul Over Forest-Service Rule Change

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The Ashley National Forest in northeastern Utah is part of more than 8 million acres of woodlands in the state managed by the U.S. Forest Service. (Jeff/Adobe Stock)
The Ashley National Forest in northeastern Utah is part of more than 8 million acres of woodlands in the state managed by the U.S. Forest Service. (Jeff/Adobe Stock)
November 20, 2020

OGDEN, Utah -- The U.S. Forest Service has issued a controversial rule green-lighting activities such as logging and road-building in national forests in Utah and elsewhere without a public comment period. The move is part of a flurry of regulatory rollbacks by the Trump administration that will diminish protections for migratory birds, and expand drilling and mining.

Susan Jane Brown, public lands director and staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, said the rule changes the National Environmental Policy Act requirement that environmental impact studies be completed before infrastructure projects can begin.

"The procedures that the agency did finalize and decided to move forward with are a pretty substantial threat to our national forests," she said, "particularly given this administration's focus on commercial extraction from our public lands."

She said the rule OKs "categorical exclusions" to allow the Forest Service to proceed with most projects without a public notice. Officials have said the change is needed so the agency can efficiently maintain and repair infrastructure on the public lands it manages.

Brown said putting a road in a national forest can set off a chain reaction of ecological events -- and most of them are bad.

"Scientists tell us that roads are a pretty impactful action to take," she said. "To build roads on public lands has innumerable adverse effects on water quality, on wildlife, and contributes to things like forest fires."

Brown said conservation groups have for years battled the Trump administration over its efforts to water down or eliminate environmental protections. She said they're hopeful a new administration will review and overturn some of the changes.

"It's definitely one of those late-hour actions that would be subject to reversal by an incoming administration," she said. "Whether or not this is going to rank on their priority list is unclear. A number of advocates will be talking with the transition team and apprising them of our concerns."

The new regulations are scheduled to go into effect immediately.

A WELC statement on the issue is online at westernlaw.org.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - UT