Judge Rejects USDA’s Revised Forest Rule

     (CN) – A federal judge in Oakland, Calif., rejected the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest attempt to bring its 2008 revision of national forest regulations into compliance with federal law.

     The National Forest Management Act charges the USDA with implementing a three-tiered regulatory approach to forest management, with tiers existing at the national, regional and local levels. These regulations affect the country’s 193 million acres of national forest land.
     In 2008, the agency revised its regulations governing the development of local and regional forest management plans.
Environmentalists, led by the Citizens for Better Forestry, claimed the agency flouted the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to properly analyze the environmental impact of the revision.
     The 2008 revision stemmed from a 2000 rule and a subsequent amendment that loosened regulations in a number of ways, including relaxing the species viability requirement that the USDA “insure” continued species existence.
     The USDA didn’t prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 2000 rule, explaining that the rule was merely procedural and would have no significant impact on the environment. It asserted the same for its 2005 amendment, which was meant to “substantially improve” the 2000 rule by “eliminating unnecessary procedural detail, clarifying intended results, and streamlining procedural requirements consistent with agency staffing, funding, and skill levels.”
     Environmentalists challenged the 2005 amendment and won. The district court blocked the agency from implementing the 2005 rule until it complied with federal requirements – namely, analyzing the rule’s effect on the environment.
     These actions triggered the 2008 revision, in which the government purported to take a hard look at how the eased regulations affected the environment.
     But Citizens for Better Forestry said the agency simply reiterated its incorrect view that the rule would not affect the environment or protected species.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken brushed aside the government’s standing challenge and agreed that the environmental impact statement fell short of federal requirements.
     “Although the EIS discusses the differences between the various standards, it fails to acknowledge the effect of eliminating the viability requirement,” Wilken wrote (emphasis in original).
     “Because the EIS does not evaluate the environmental impacts of the 2008 Rule, it does not comply with NEPA’s requirements.”
     The judge vacated the 2008 rule and remanded to the government.

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