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Federal land managers are proposing rule changes to a landmark environmental law. They want to fast track forest management projects like thinning and prescribed burning that they say are critical to reducing wildfire risk. Environmentalists are calling it a backdoor move to increase logging, which they say will do little to reduce the risk. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: After last fall's deadly Camp Fire, the Trump administration has been trying to speed up forest management projects in the name of preventing these big mega fires. Now the Forest Service is proposing revisions to its National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, regulations for the first time in more than a decade. The change could limit reviews and public input on everything from forest thinning projects to infrastructure upgrades to commercial logging. In an interview, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said most of these projects have broad support, and they're needlessly stalling out.
VICKI CHRISTIANSEN: We do more analysis than we need. We take more time than we need, and we slow down important work to protect communities and their resources.
SIEGLER: The proposed rule changes would expand so-called categorical exclusions. It's a wonky sounding term for something that's hugely controversial. That's because these exclusions allow land managers to bypass full-blown environmental studies if they've already shown there wouldn't be a severe impact to forests.
John Gale is with the conservation group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He says if applied carefully and narrowly to certain projects, the exclusions could help lower the wildfire risk. But he's skeptical because the administration recently rolled back protections for clean water and wildlife habitat.
JOHN GALE: We also don't want to see this become sort of a Trojan horse for unchecked resource extraction.
SIEGLER: The Forest Service insists this is not about ramping up commercial logging in public forests. Chief Christiansen pointed out that it took 530 days just to approve a project in overgrown forests near Lake Tahoe. If the rules are changed, she predicts planning time for work like that could be cut in half.
CHRISTIANSEN: We're proposing more efficiency, not short-cutting any of our responsibilities for good environmental assessment and stewardship on the land, not short-cutting - in fact enhancing where we can - public involvement.
SIEGLER: Federal agencies complain of analysis paralysis, and politicians have long blasted what they call frivolous lawsuits that stall forest work. But another culprit slowing down the work out on the land is budget cuts. Paradoxically, in the Forest Service, money has been taken away from these wildfire prevention programs to pay for fighting wildfires. The Forest Service's proposed rule changes are subject to a 60-day public comment period. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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