As you read this, there are more than 80 million acres of national forests in need of treatment to mitigate wildfire risk and stave off the insect and disease infestations that plague them. This backlog of restoration work affects more than 7,000 businesses and 120,000 related jobs. We can’t continue to do business as usual. We can change the way we work. I believe our proposed rules for how the Forest Service complies with the National Environmental Policy Act are critical components to improve our conservation outcomes and to provide better service to the American people.
Let me be clear, the National Environmental Policy Act is a tremendous benefit to the American people and the resources we manage on their behalf. As a land management agency, the National Environmental Policy Act touches nearly everything we do. As with similar agencies, this law requires us to consider how our actions may affect people and the environment. That said, the way we comply with the requirements of that law must be adjusted to meet today’s needs and face today’s challenges.
These proposed changes were not created lightly. We reviewed nearly 10 years of our own environmental analysis data and found that we take more time than necessary and slow down important work needed to protect communities, livelihoods and resources.
Moreover, the proposed changes were shaped by extensive public input, intensive review of hundreds of past projects, and are completely consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act. These efforts revealed a simple truth: our agency performs more analysis than needed. At a glance, this may seem like a good thing in the context of “more information is better.” Unfortunately, performing more analysis than necessary is not only costlier to the taxpayer, it also delays the critical work that makes our forests healthier, productive and more resilient.
Put simply, our current way of doing business is inefficient, and as our forests face unprecedented challenges, we must take action. We cannot afford to wait.
Back in June, we rolled out our proposal to modernize Forest Service rules related to how we comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. The proposal would allow us to address millions of acres of forest in desperate need of treatment, by improving how we perform analysis, helping us make speedier decisions that allow us to get that work going. The changes would have the added benefit of bringing our processes into alignment with other agencies, and would still exceed what is required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
Over the past week we have heard concerned voices saying they fear the proposed changes will cut the American people out of the work we do or that we will cut corners in protecting our shared resources. Please be assured: the Forest Service is first and foremost, a public service agency. Nothing in what is proposed will change our bedrock principles of conservation and service.
The National Environmental Policy Act drives how we perform public engagement, but it is not why we engage. We work with the people and communities we serve because it is the right thing to do. In fact, the Forest Service does not want less public involvement, we want more. The proposed changes would continue the robust public engagement that has guided our work for more than a century.
We have partnerships with thousands of people and organizations that help us perform our mission. We work closely with county commissioners, tribal governments, and state and federal agencies in planning and executing the countless projects we have underway at any time. Perhaps most importantly, the relationships our employees and leaders have with their local communities are the real foundation on which our successes are built.
Regardless of what changes come from the proposal, we will continue our tradition of public engagement and notification when we undertake any major project. Our intent is to invite public participation in our work in the right way and at the right scale. Whether it is a notice in the local paper, announcements in community meetings, over the internet and social media, or a combination of these, the American people will not be left in the dark, nor will they be voiceless.
We have been accepting comments on the proposed rule since June 12. So far, we have more than 55,000 comments. Considering the importance of the proposed rules to our agency and the American people, we have extended the comment period by 14 days. The comment period now ends on August 26. Once the comment period has ended, we will review and carefully consider what those comments entail. Based on that, we will make any necessary adjustments to craft the best rule that we can.
For more than 100 years the Forest Service has brought people and communities together to answer the call of conservation. Conservation depends on all of us seeing and doing our part by coming together, learning from each other, and finding common ground. I believe these proposed rules are an important step toward answering that call, in the face of some of the most difficult conservation challenges we have ever faced.
I would like to extend my thanks to partners, citizens, states and other groups who have not only offered their comment but have also expressed support throughout this process. This includes our retirees. Please add your voice to the story by engaging in the comment period and encourage others to do so as well. Together we can take care of nature as nature takes care of us. Learn more, here, and comment in the Federal Register at this link.