DENVER, June 19 (UPI) -- U.S. environmental groups are sounding the alarm that one of the oldest environmental laws in the United States is being weakened on multiple fronts by the Trump administration.
The U.S. Forest Service last week proposed changes to the agency's participation in the National Environmental Policy Act that could potentially fast-track logging, oil and gas exploration and grazing in U.S. forests.
This week, an environmental group sued the Environmental Protection Agency for withholding information on how the agency abolished an oversight grading system used with the act.
The forest service announced in the Federal Register that it would overhaul how it analyzes the environmental impacts of projects on its 193 million acres of national forest land.
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said in a statement that the agency has long been understaffed and has recently had to put a majority of the agency's resources toward wildfire prevention.
The agency said it would increase the number and type of projects that were exempt from environmental impact statements or environmental assessments under the act, which was passed in 1970 during the Nixon administration and has been described as "the Magna Carta" of environmental laws.
According to the Forest Service, the average environmental assessment takes 687 days to complete. A new category of "categorical exclusions" could cut the average time to 206 days, the agency said.
"We have pored over 10 years of environmental data and have found that in many cases, we do redundant analyses, slowing down important work to protect communities, livelihoods and resources," Christiansen said in a statement.
But environmental groups view the changes as a way to obscure details about industry projects that could have a serious environmental impact.
Montana's Alliance for the Wild Rockies used the rules in the environmental policy act process last spring to sue in federal court to stop a logging project next to Yellowstone National Park.
The proposed Northern Hebgen timber sale project would have clear-cut 73,250 acres, and bulldozed 15 miles of new roads, said Michael Garrity, executive director. A judge ruled in May 2018 that the Forest Service had not taken into account the habitat destruction for the threatened Canada lynx species and big game such as elk in the old-growth forests.
Garrity called the logging operations in Montana forests a "handout" to remaining logging companies who denuded most private land during the 2008 recession, when most companies closed down or moved out of state.
"In the last 10 years, the Forest Service here has doubled the amount of timber they have cut," Garrity said.
He said the National Environmental Policy Act process allows citizens to weigh in through local public comment on proposed projects in the national forests that "belong to 325 million Americans, not just the Montanans who live nearby."
By expanding categorical exclusions -- that are exempt from the rules -- the Forest Service is making its plans less transparent, said Garrity, a fifth-generation Montanan.
"Teddy Roosevelt created the national forests to protect the watersheds from the timber companies," Garrity said. "Also, he was a big-game hunter, and he wanted a wildlife habitat for native species."
Private industries who want to drill, log or mine in national forest lands are frustrated by lawsuits from environmental groups, and have even blamed recent extreme wildfires on the red-tape delays caused by the environmental policy act. But a federal study in 2010 showed that 80 percent of national forest projects proceeded with no challenges or public comment.
Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency in federal court this week, alleging that the agency was not providing public information about how and why it abruptly eliminated a grading system for federal projects as part of the National Environmental Policy Act.
The EPA announced in October 2018 that the agency had cancelled its grading system -- a simplified way to determine how well federal agencies complied with the environmental policy act. The environmental organization filed freedom of information requests to find out the circumstances behind the change.
"This is like a student hiding his report card because it's full of Fs," said Paulo Lopes, a public lands policy specialist in a statement. "Officials are rubber-stamping polluting projects, regardless of the damage. The public deserves to know why the EPA secretly abandoned this critical oversight tool."
The EPA's grading system, used for 30 years, was a way for the agency's oversight of a federal plan to be easily explained to the public, said Brett Hartl, the center's government affairs director.
"When the EPA said the environmental analysis of the Keystone Pipeline project was 'grossly inadequate,' that was a good signal to the public that this project was a problem," Hartl said. Without the grading system, long, technical reports from the EPA are "hard for the public to understand," he said.
Rules put in place by the National Environmental Policy Act do not say that a government agency has to do the "most environmentally protective thing," Hartl said.
"The whole point of the act is to inform the public what's happening and make sure the government knows what it's doing may be destructive.
"The Trump administration is not approaching [the act] with a thoughtful scalpel. They are just trying to get these projects through as fast as possible by obfuscating what's really happening inside the government."
The public has until Aug. 12, 2019, to comment on the U.S. Forest Service's proposed restructuring of the National Environmental Policy Act. You can comment via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.