Almost a year ago, a federal judge threw out the Forest Service's attempt to seriously weaken the rules that protect 193 million acres of National Forest land all across the country. U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton found that among other problems, Bush administration officials had failed to do a legally required Environmental Impact Statement to determine how weakening protections for wildlife, clean water, old growth, and public involvement in the planning process would affect our forests.
"The national forest planning rules are like the Constitution for our national forests, and the Bush administration tried to throw out the Bill of Rights," said Trent Orr of Earthjustice, who argued the case before Judge Hamilton. "The Forest Service appears to be rushing out yet another set of regulations that weaken protections for wildlife and biological diversity on the national forests. This proposal will continue to favor industrial forestry over protecting clean streams and fisheries."
Unfortunately, the court-ordered Final Environmental Impact Statement released today fails once again to live up to what the court, or the law, required. Like the draft released this summer, it provides no actual impact analysis of Bush's proposed regulations or of potential alternative forms of those regulations, which should be the heart of an EIS. Instead, it brashly states that none of the alternatives would affect the environment. This doesn't come close to complying with the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Final EIS reveals that the new regulations eliminate wildlife and diversity protections just as the 2005 Bush Rule did. The new regulations substitute "Categorical Exclusions" for Environmental Impact Statements as the rule for forest plans. The Endangered Species Act-required biological assessment on the new planning regulations concludes that these will have no effect on any species listed as endangered or threatened, despite their abandonment of existing protections for wildlife in the national forests.
"Not only is the Bush administration trying to seriously weaken key protections for our National Forests, they pretend that these actions won't have any effect," said Kate Freund, Legislative Associate for Earthjustice. "They have once again failed to make a good-faith effort to follow the law."
One change in the latest version would give forest managers complete discretion to decide how future forest plans are analyzed under NEPA, or even whether environmental impacts are considered at all.
In October of 2007, 68 members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter to the Forest Service, opposing the proposed National Forest management changes and calling for thorough environmental review of the rule.
"NEPA is our 'look before you leap' law, which ensures openness in federal decision-making, said Orr. "By only paying lip-service to analyzing environmental impacts and seeking to exclude future forest plans from NEPA, the Bush administration is thumbing its nose at the court, Congress, and the American people."
Trent Orr, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6700
Tim Preso, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699
Kate Freund, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500
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