The Trump administration has gifted several potential exemptions to damaging activities—including logging, roadbuilding, and mining—that could allow them to evade critical environmental reviews. The move shows the destructive power the lame duck executive wields even in the last few weeks of his presidency.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), known as the Magna Carta of U.S. environmental law, requires major government projects to undergo a thorough process of scientific review and public comment. Over the past four years, the Trump administration has steadily chipped away at NEPA. In early August, Trump struck his biggest blow against the law: Reviews going forward must conclude within two years, regardless of complexity or contentiousness; climate change need not be considered in environmental analyses; and agencies were given the power to exempt broad categories of projects from NEPA requirements—eliminating the public’s right to participate in how federal lands are managed. One environmental advocate called Trump’s rule the “single-biggest giveaway to polluters in the past 40 years,” and groups, including NRDC, sued immediately.
The U.S. Forest Service has now exercised its power under the new rule to exempt from environmental review any project that affects less than 2,800 acres of national forestland. This limitation flies in the face of NEPA’s intent and language. Logging thousands of acres of land is a consequential action with the potential to affect local ecosystems as well as the global climate. National forests are also a source of drinking water for 180 million people, and communities near those forests will no longer have a say in decisions that could affect their water supply.
The rule change could also worsen wildfires. The western United States has just survived its worst wildfire season in recorded history. If we have any hope of protecting the West against ever-worsening fires, federal scientists must carefully consider which federal lands must remain intact. Allowing timber companies to swoop in and log large plots of forest, with no meaningful review of the effect on wildfire risk, makes no sense. President Trump himself blames the wildfires on poor forest management. If that’s really his view—and not just a craven attempt to shift responsibility to others—he ought to be strengthening the management of forests rather than weakening it.