US Forest Service Sidelines the Use of Environmental Studies for Infrastructure Projects

Published Dec 16, 2020

What happened: The US Forest Service issued a rule that weakens the requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to study potential environmental harms from proposed infrastructure projects.

Why it matters: By weakening this science-based requirement, the Forest Service has potentially opened national forests up to harmful industrial activities. NEPA represents one of the most important environmental laws in the US and the effectiveness of the law hinges on the requirement to conduct scientific analyses to assess potential environmental harms from proposed infrastructure projects.

A rule finalized by the US Forest Service allows the agency to sidestep requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to conduct analyses that examine potential environmental harms from proposed projects like logging, roadbuilding, mining, and pipelines. Additionally, the new rule adopts a policy that would allow the Forest Service to rely on environmental assessments from similar past projects, even if these older scientific studies contain outdated or insufficient information for the new project.

The Forest Service rule states that infrastructure projects that cover up to 2,800 acres of national forest land can be exempt from environmental analyses that are normally required under NEPA. These exemptions, termed categorical exclusions, include six new categories “related to recreation special uses, administrative sites, recreation sites, and restoration and resilience projects.” Categorical exclusions are projects that are deemed to have no environmental impact and therefore NEPA analyses – known as environmental assessments or environmental impact statements – do not need to be carried out by agencies.

The absence of NEPA analyses also impacts the ability of communities to be informed of and weigh in on proposed infrastructure projects happening nearby. Often, the only way that impacted communities can learn about and provide input on an infrastructure project in advance is when federal agencies carry out notice-and-comment procedures for a NEPA analysis. The rule may especially impact rural and Indigenous communities since national forests are more often located near them and forests often support their livelihood and cultural traditions.

This is not the first time that the Trump administration has sidelined NEPA and weakened its scientific and community requirements. In September 2020, the White House’s Council of Environmental Quality issued a rule that enacted a one-to-two year deadline on environmental assessments, took away requirements to consider climate change impacts, and reduced the ability of impacted communities from having a say in permitting decisions. This rule was considered a substantial change to how NEPA is implemented by the federal government and was previously considered by the Union of Concerned Scientists to be an attack on science.

The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of national forests, and it is estimated that forests are a source of drinking water for 150 million people in the US. Forests can filter out sediments and pollution and therefore serve as one of the nation’s most important sources of clean drinking water. By issuing a rule that allows the Forest Service to bypass important scientific studies and community input on numerous infrastructure projects, the agency is potentially endangering the ecosystem of millions of acres of forest and is risking the health and safety of millions of people who rely on forests for basic needs like clean drinking water.