Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, in a memo distributed to staff of the US Forest Service last month, made clear he views lands under Forest Service management as under-utilized when it comes to energy production and resource extraction. Environmental regulations will be loosened in a bid to emphasize production at the expense of conservation, if Perdue’s blueprints are carried out the way he’s outlined them.
The memo instructs Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen to speed approval for drilling, timber harvests, and mining projects, while also hastening connection of broadband services in deeply rural areas and the construction of communication infrastructure that requires.
“Today, I am announcing a blueprint for reforms to further provide relief from burdensome regulations, improve customer service, and boost the productivity of our National Forests and Grasslands,” he said in the memo.
Environmental groups warily assume this is merely a way to sidestep conservation efforts in order to more quickly harvest timber and fossil fuels and allow far more grazing access in areas that have traditionally focused on conservation. Expediting environmental review typically means something closer to rollbacks of environmental protection.
“This is a roadmap to national forest destruction, and it’s painful to read,” said Randi Spivak, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program.
“In the midst of the climate and extinction crises, Perdue offers a dystopian vision of expanding mining, fracking, logging and grazing in national forests. This will increase air and water pollution, kill wildlife and increase carbon pollution. It’s the extractive industry’s agenda on steroids.”
Republicans in Congress praised the memo, citing more flexible and streamlined approaches in areas like wildfire management that often requires cutting down trees and the environmental review that typically requires.
“This memorandum is a major step toward better management of our national forests and grasslands,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.). “The healthiest forests are ones that are actively managed, not left susceptible to diseases and wildfire. For the past several decades, the Forest Service has not had its priorities straight in terms of proper management. I applaud Secretary Perdue and Chief Christensen for taking another positive step in improving those priorities. I look forward to seeing these new strategies improve the health of our national forests and grasslands, so we can continue to enjoy these special places for generations to come.”
Perdue’s guidance comes on the heels of rule changes at the Forest Service that roll back environmental regulations in order to speed maintenance of the nation’s public forests. The USFS brass say this is to help mitigate wildfire or speed small projects that have little affect on conservation; many environmental groups argue it’s a push to allow industry into public lands with little regulatory oversight.
Some of those rule changes allow for building up to 5 miles of new roads across Forest Service-managed lands before any sort of review is triggered, or the cutting down of up to 1,200 trees, provided habitat restoration projects are undertaken in nearby areas.
“We need modern systems and approaches and less complicated regulations to serve our customers and improve our delivery of the goods and services that the American people want and need,” Perdue said in his memo.