WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the Trump administration pushing to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced two proposals Thursday that would expedite timber sales by reducing regulatory and environmental analysis.
The BLM plans to eliminate a 15-day protest period for projects that have already received a full review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
Officials are also seeking to create a new "categorical exclusion" for salvage logging in areas affected by wildfires, insects and disease. Categorical exclusions apply to projects that do not significantly harm the environment, and are exempt from a full NEPA assessment.
Acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley said the moves are in response to a 2018 executive order signed by President Trump calling for more thinning of overstocked forests to protect against increasingly large wildfires burning across the West.
"We want to improve the condition of the lands, and we also want to reduce wildfires," Pendley said in an interview with the Capital Press. "We haven't taken a hard look at our NEPA rules in some 30 years. It's high time we get back to making things more effective and efficient."
Pendley also pointed to another executive order issued May 19 asking federal agencies to rescind, modify, waive or provide exemptions from regulations and requirements that might stall economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The president has urged us to take care of our forestland and local economies, and remove regulations that inhibit recovery from the (coronavirus)," he said.
By dropping the 15-day protest period for approved timber sales, Pendley said timber contractors can get to work faster without projects being tied up by potentially long and expensive delays.
As an example, Pendley discussed the controversial Pickett Hog timber sale in southwest Oregon near Grants Pass, which was given the green light in 2017 but held up for more than a year as the BLM addressed 29 different protests.
In July 2018, roughly 70% of the timber was torched by the 53,000-acre Taylor Creek fire, costing local jobs and revenue, Pendley said.
The proposal, he said, will not stifle public input but rather focus opportunities for comment during the NEPA process, allowing the agency to make better and swifter decisions.
A second proposal would create a categorical exclusion for salvage logging on projects smaller than 5,000 acres. Salvage logging allows foresters to remove dead or damaged trees that might be hazardous to firefighters, but are still marketable to mills.
"Fostering timber jobs while reducing wildfire risks is a win-win," Pendley said.
Both recommendations are now up for public comment. The American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry trade group based in Portland, said members support the BLM's efforts to modernize forest management and streamline the process for post-fire restoration.
"These proposed rules are especially important for Southern Oregon communities that have endured years of catastrophic wildfires and smoke due to the lack of active forest management on surrounding federal lands," said Nick Smith, a spokesman for the AFRC.
Brad Hicks, president and CEO of the Medford and Jackson County chambers of commerce, said the new rules will help save jobs, tourism and even lives in Southern Oregon.
"This is quite an achievement, and the effort will go a long way toward protecting our quality of life, providing relief from wildfires and smoke and ensuring that our region remains a destination for tourism far into the future," Hicks said.
Not everyone is as enthusiastic.
Jayson O'Neill, director of the Montana-based Western Values Project — a nonprofit dedicated to conserving public lands — said the proposals are another example of the administration's efforts to erode environmental and public scrutiny.
"Now what we’re seeing is the real-world impact of that directive," O'Neill said. "When it comes to our environment and these projects that impact public health, they chose to take the low road and eliminate public and community input and potential questions that arise out of a decision to grant industry unfettered access to exploit America's public resources."
O'Neill said he believes the proposals will be challenged. He described them as "shortcuts" for the BLM to sidestep environmental laws.
"What we've seen from this administration since they've walked in the door is that, when it comes to these decisions, the public is last and industry is first," he said.