The Forest Service is clear-cutting old growth, circumventing NEPA, and offering up public lands for storing carbon waste. Biden needs to step in.
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The roughly 35,800 employees of the federal Forest Service, housed within the Department of Agriculture, are responsible for managing 193,000,000 acres of national forests. The mission of the Forest Service is to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” Yet time and time again, the Forest Service has betrayed this mission in order to service the profit-driven ends of the timber industry, prioritizing commercial timber extraction over recreation and conservation, and ignoring the essential role intact forests play in mitigating our ongoing biodiversity and climate crises.
Though President Biden passed an Executive Order in April last year articulating his administration’s commitment to conserve mature and old growth forests, the Forest Service routinely disregards science and the White House’s directives to instead push clear-cutting in these same forests. Ironically, despite perpetual caterwauling from neoliberals about the tyranny of environmentalists, the Forest Service frequently cuts corners to dodge environmental reviews. The Forest Service is also proving to be a willing and undiscerning ally in the Biden administration’s push to rapidly scale up the fossil fuel industry’s favorite false climate solution: carbon capture, utilization, and storage. In this newsletter, I’ll highlight three major areas in which the Forest Service is acting in concert with corporate interests to whittle public forests down to paper and profit.
1. Offering Up Public Lands for Storing Carbon Waste
Earlier this year, the Forest Service announced it would propose a regulatory amendment to grant an “exclusive or perpetual right of use or occupancy” for “permanent carbon dioxide sequestration” on national forest system lands. The proposed rule is slated to come out this month, though as of August 30th, it hasn’t been published. A coalition of environmental groups has already secured over 9,000 signatures for a petition opposing the proposal.
“Not only would carbon storage require the buildout of dangerous pipelines, injection wells and roads — it would also pose potentially deadly risks to people and wildlife,” the coalition wrote. “Carbon dioxide leaks are highly hazardous and can lead to suffocation, even for those miles away.” Sequestering carbon underground comes with local risks of contaminating groundwater and triggering seismic activity, in addition to leaks’ climate impacts. And transporting CO2 via pipelines for storage or “utilization” is also inherently dangerous, as the Pipeline Safety Trust explains here.
In 2020, a CO2 pipeline ruptured in Satartia, Mississippi and sent dozens of people to the hospital, many of whom continue to suffer symptoms from their exposure. As investigative journalist Dan Zegart explained in his remarkable reporting on “The Gassing Of Satartia”: “Carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant that displaces ambient oxygen, making it more difficult to breathe. Smaller exposures cause coughing, dizziness and a panicky feeling called ‘air hunger.’ As CO2 concentrations get higher and exposure times longer, the gas causes a range of effects from unconsciousness to coma to death.”
Since the Satartia disaster, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has said they will propose a new rule regulating CO2 pipeline safety, but doesn’t plan to issue the proposed rule until 2024, and has yet to propose a date for finalization. The Biden administration is currently pushing billions of dollars towards carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology, even as CCUS remains grossly under-regulated.
Offering up national forests to be the playground for industry to experiment with novel, dangerous, and under-regulated technologies, all while failing to rein in the major cause of our accumulating CO2 pollution, is the height of madness. Instead of letting companies extract oil and gas from public lands, and then sequester their waste products permanently on public lands, the Biden administration needs to follow the science. As Laura Haight, U.S. policy director for the Partnership for Policy Integrity, put it: “Our national forests are already home to the most viable carbon capture and storage technology on Earth — they’re called trees.”
2. Recent Permitting Reform Provisions Enable the Forest Service’s Ongoing Evasion of NEPA Review
You may remember that Biden’s compromise bill bringing an end to the GOP’s manufactured debt ceiling crisis—the so-called Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA)—made several changes to expedite permitting for energy infrastructure under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), our nation’s bedrock environmental law.
Among other changes, the FRA expanded the use of “categorical exclusions” under NEPA: actions which agencies decide should be excluded from the usual environmental review process because the action doesn’t normally impact the quality of the environment. The FRA expands the use of categorical exclusions by allowing agencies to use exclusion categories that other agencies have established, without any public notice and comment period. The agency merely has to publicly identify the categorical exclusion it’s planning to use, and document its adoption. One of the agencies already notorious for over-using categorical exclusions is the Forest Service.
Back in 2004, Kevin H. Moriarty wrote for NYU Law Review about how the Forest Service had steadily increased the number of actions it exempted from NEPA review since the 1980s. “Although the Forest Service’s push for increased discretion in categorical exclusions is troubling, equally disturbing has been the CEQ’s [Council on Environmental Quality’s] role in enabling agencies to evade NEPA requirements,” Moriarty argued. “The CEQ has operated in conjunction with agencies such as the Forest Service to undermine two of NEPA’s legislative and commonlaw purposes: public participation and the creation of an administrative record.”
The trend has continued over the past two decades. Trump’s Forest Service further expanded its use of categorical exclusions (CEs) to fast-track logging and prescribed burning. A 2020 report from WildEarth Guardians examined five categorical exclusions that the Forest Service typically used as justification for authorizing logging, thinning, and prescribed burning in national forests without environmental review, and found that the Forest Service’s irregular disclosure practices made it “extremely difficult for the public to track the Forest Service’s use of CEs based on SOPA reviews.”
“Overall, the Forest Service inconsistently provided complete project information, leaving few options for the public to meaningfully engage in the process or learn about proposed actions and their impacts,” the researchers found. “The failure of the Forest Service to identify the specific CE authority and acreage, or analyze impacts and the existence of extraordinary circumstances, cast serious doubt on the Forest Service’s claim that it is properly using its authorities.”
Without strong guidance from CEQ on how agencies should review and modify their existing categorical exclusions, and have better disclosure practices, it’s likely that Forest Service will continue to obscure its rationale for taking disruptive actions on public lands without environmental review.
3. The Forest Service Is Ignoring Best Science To Continue Logging Mature and Old Growth Forests
Marianne Lavelle, an investigative reporter at Inside Climate News, has put out several important stories in the past few months about communities fighting the Forest Service’s clear-cutting plans around the country, from Indiana’s Hoosier National Forest to Yellowstone to Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. This spring, the Biden administration released a first-of-its-kind inventory of mature and old growth forests on public lands, which revealed that more than 60 percent of the trees managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are mature or old growth trees; nearly twice as much as was previously thought.
“Along with the inventory, the White House announced a plan for new regulations to enhance ‘climate resilience’ in public forests,” Lavelle reported. “But it remains to be seen whether those rules will lead to greater protection for mature and old-growth stands on public lands, as some environmentalists have called for, or for more logging, thinning and prescribed burning by the Forest Service in order to control wildfire, disease and other climate-related threats.”
But how could new “climate resilience” initiatives lead to more logging? By the Climate Forests Campaign’s count, the Forest Service is currently targeting 370,000 acres of mature and old-growth forests for logging or burning. Lavelle explained that “in virtually all those cases, the Forest Service…says such ‘treatments’ are needed to improve forest health or increase resilience.” In 2021, Forest Service researchers concluded that their own logging levels were unsustainable and needed to be reduced by 60 percent or more; this year, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore stated that they’re planning to increase logging to a goal of 1 billion more board feet a year.
The Forest Service is also ignoring the latest established science, which shows that older trees are essential in the fight against climate change because their ability to store carbon increases as they grow. They’ve been justifying logging old-growth forests—whose trees fetch the highest price—as necessary for “young forest creation.” As Lavelle pointed out, “The ultimate beneficiaries of the drive are timber companies, who face global challenges in sourcing raw material due both to the depletion of resources and environmental restrictions.”
The White House needs to recognize that the Forest Service is not following the spirit of its directives and is routinely distorting its responsibilities under both Executive Orders and environmental laws like NEPA in order to preserve its extractivist practices. What good is official administration policy, if the agencies fail to implement it? President Biden is the leader of the executive branch. He must act like it and rein in these abuses.
Democrats on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry should also conduct better oversight of the Forest Service’s failure to meet Biden administration directives, and abuses of NEPA. Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow has only months before her retirement from the Senate, and nothing to lose from picking a good fight here. Sen. Peter Welch from Vermont, also on the Committee, should be aware that 14,270 acres of the Green Mountain National Forest, including more than 130 stands older than 100 years, are being logged by the Forest Service under the dubious justification of creating young forests for wildlife habitat, while project documents admit that “project activities” are “chiefly commercial timber harvests.”
Somehow, the Forest Service came to the conclusion that this logging project in Vermont had “no significant impact” under NEPA. If clear-cutting thousands of acres of mature forest has “no significant impact,” I can’t imagine what the Forest Service thinks actually merits environmental review. Until someone in power decides to rein in the Forest Service’s entrenched developer mindset, along with climate impacts, catastrophic wildfires, insect infestation, and disease, the Forest Service must be included among the major threats to mature and old growth forests in this country.
Image: the U.S. Forest Service clear-cutting old-growth forest in Willamette National Forest, Oregon.