Virginia groups sue U.S. Forest Service over new environmental review standards

Virginia groups sue U.S. Forest Service over new environmental review standards
Paddling on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River in the George Washington National Forest. (Source: Virginia.org)

Four Virginia organizations have joined a coalition of Southern Appalachian environmental groups that are suing the U.S. Forest Service over changes to federal environmental rules that determine how much scrutiny regulators must give activities like logging and utility projects in national forests.

The rule, which was finalized by President Donald Trump’s administration Nov. 19, aims “to bypass the fundamental requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act” and “will cause significant harm to publicly owned national forests across the country and to members of the public who use those lands,” the lawsuit contends.

Virginia groups participating in the challenge include the Clinch Coalition, the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia Wilderness Committee and Wild Virginia. The South Carolina-based Chattooga Conservancy, Tennessee-based Cherokee Forest Voices, Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife, Georgia Forestwatch and North Carolina-based Mountaintrue are the other plaintiffs.

All of the groups are being represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The case has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia’s courthouse in Big Stone Gap.

At the heart of the suit lies controversial changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark environmental protection law passed in 1969 that is sometimes called the Magna Carta of federal environmental laws.

Under NEPA, federal agencies are required to assess the environmental impacts of activities on federal lands, examine alternative ways those activities could be carried out and determine any mitigation that ought to take place to offset impacts.

Key among its provisions is the requirement for agencies to prepare either an “environmental assessment” or, for more significant and far-reaching projects, the longer and more detailed “environmental impact statement.” Projects that typically don’t have significant impacts can be granted a “categorical exclusion” that exempts them from either of these processes and their associated public input requirements.

In a 2010 guidance document for federal agencies, the Council on Environmental Quality, which administers NEPA, described a categorical exclusion as “a category of actions which do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment” and noted that the tool “can reduce paperwork and delay.” However, the memo warned, “if used inappropriately, categorical exclusions can thwart NEPA’s environmental stewardship goals, by compromising the quality and transparency of agency environmental review and decisionmaking, as well as compromising the opportunity for meaningful public participation and review.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.