The U.S. Forest Service is being sued by a coalition of Southern environmental groups to overrule changes that will relax how much scrutiny federal regulators need to give potentially harmful projects in national forests.
The Trump administration finalized a rule last November that creates an easier path forward for roadbuilding, pipeline constructions, logging, and other utility projects. The policy allows the agency to bypass certain environmental reviews and public notice, which in the past have been required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The rule increases the number of “categorical exclusions,” which, put simply, are actions that can skip the NEPA processes. According to the lawsuit, the new rule bypasses the base requirements of the NEPA and “will cause significant harm to publicly owned national forests across the country and to members of the public who use those lands.”
Four Virginia organizations—the Clinch Coalitions, the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia Wilderness Committee, and Wild Virginia—recently joined the coalition of plaintiffs that also includes the South Carolina-based Chattooga Conservancy, Tennessee-based Cherokee Forest Voices, Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife, Georgia Forestwatch, and North Carolina-based Mountaintrue.
Federal officials say the rule will save the USFS time when trying to maintain and repair infrastructure by relying more on existing environmental analyses. Though many are criticizing the agency for seemingly attempting to limit public input on future projects and decisions.
“In short, the Forest Service’s rule allows more commercial exploitation with less public accountability, and that’s a terrible shift in balance,” said Sam Evans in a press release, leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program. “National forests, and especially those in the Southern Appalachians, are resources for everybody. But the Trump administration wants to give logging lobbyists louder voices than the rest of us.”
The case has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia’s courthouse in Big Stone Gap, and all of the groups are being represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.