Categorical Exclusion Rule for Small Timber Harvests

 

The Forests Service proposes to categorically exclude or exempt from environmental review certain small timber sales outside of highly controversial areas. The proposal exempts national forest logging projects from environmental review, offers no protection for mature and old-growth forests, and reduces public input. 

Background

In 1981 the Forest Service first created rules to exempt certain logging activities from environmental review and public process, since then, the agency’s rules have been revised several times. The most recent revision in 1992 expanded the National Environmental Policy Act exemption to standard logging projects of up to 250,000 board feet and salvage logging projects of up to 1 million board feet, with one mile of road construction allowed.

In September 1999, the US District court for the Southern District of Illinois found that the volume limits used for the exemptions were arbitrary, and declared the exemption rule null and void. The court ruling barred the Forest Service from further timber sale exemptions under this rule. 

In response to losing this lawsuit, the Forest Service put together a review of 154 logging projects and determined that none had a significant impact on the environment. Based on this review, the Forest Service is proposing to add three new categorical exclusions to its rulebook.

Three new exemptions from environmental review:

1) The first new proposed categorical exclusion (CE) exempts timber harvests which include up to 50 acres and ½ mile of temporary road construction. While this exemption does not allow for traditional clear cutting (logging every tree), it still allows intensive commercial thins where the majority of trees would be logged, making the area inhospitable to many wildlife species. It also does not include provisions to protect mature and old-growth forests. 

2) The second CE exempts salvage logging timber sales of up to 250 acres and ½ mile of temporary road building. Salvage logging could take place after any naturally occurring ecological event such as fire, wind, ice storms, or increase in insect populations or tree pathogens. This exemption will also allow for the logging of live green trees (no size limit) to build roads and other logging infrastructure. 

3) The third CE allows timber sales of up to 250 acres and ½ mile of temporary road building to “control the spread of insects and pathogens.” 

None of the three categorical exclusion provisions apply under extraordinary circumstances, such as when threatened and endangered species or their designated critical habitat would be adversely affected, or in wilderness areas, inventoried roadless areas, wetlands, and archeological or historic sites. However, the new CE provisions lack environmental safeguards for mature and old-growth forests, and native plant and wildlife habitat, and allow much room for arbitrary, uniformed decision-making. Using acreage parameters also does nothing to characterize the potential impacts -- individual or cumulative -- of a logging operation.

Public process will be greatly reduced under this new CE rule. While initial scoping is still required, the projects will be exempt from final environmental review and public disclosure of impacts. The categorical exclusions remove opportunities for meaningful public input. Although the Forest Service deemed in 1993 that public participation was warranted for logging activities under these categorical exclusions, the new rule seeks to remove the public’s right to administratively appeal CE projects.

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