Wild places sustain and define us; we, in turn, must protect them.
On December 21st, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order directing the U.S. Forest Service to expedite logging on our national forests, and to increase the volume of timber harvested to 3.8 billion board feet – a 31% increase over 2017 harvest levels. While the order appears, on its surface, to be a response to recent wildfires in California, it goes well beyond that and could have implications for our national forest lands nationwide, including here in Kentucky.
Unsurprisingly, the order doesn’t acknowledge the influence of climate change in the severity of recent wildfires in the western U.S., nor does it address costly issues stemming from growing development in fire-prone areas. Most importantly, however, the order fails to provide funding or other meaningful support for non-commercial thinning and restoration work that can, in the right places, help to restore lands degraded from past logging. Instead, the President has directed the agency to quickly increase the volume of timber cut and sold from our public lands.
In Kentucky, we may see this filter through to the Daniel Boone National Forest, and potentially Land Between the Lakes, in the form pressure on local agency staff to approve more and larger timber sales - and to do so with expedited environmental reviews and abbreviated opportunities for public input. We suspect that this is already happening internally, but the Executive Order provides another formal mechanism to satisfy logging interests. At this time on the Daniel Boone National Forest there are roughly 8,000 acres of proposed logging in various stages of analysis, with Environmental Assessments for both the Pine Creek and South Redbird projects, and Scoping for the Blackwater project, expected in early 2019.
The Executive Order dovetails into the Forest Service’s ongoing Environmental Analysis and Decision Making (EADM) process that will include a revision of its regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Among the anticipated regulatory changes through the EADM will be to preemptively label most logging projects as non-significant actions that are exempt from most environmental analysis and public input, under what’s called a Categorical Exclusion (CE). The new Executive Order calls for the Forest Service to use “all applicable categorical exclusions set forth in law or regulation for fire management, restoration, and other management projects.”
Notably, sweeping legislative changes that would have allowed most large timber projects to be exempted from review under a CE recently failed passage through the 2018 Farm Bill. Provisions that would have allowed logging projects up to 6,000 acres under a CE had passed the House version of the Farm Bill, but not the Senate, and were ultimately rejected in the Farm Bill conference report. Nearly identical language passed the House in 2017 as part of the Resilient Federal Forests Act, but was never introduced in the Senate.