Trump official visits Missoula, directs Forest Service to expedite environmental reviews

The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, came to Missoula on Friday to issue a wide-ranging memorandum that directs the Forest Service to “expedite environmental reviews to support active management” and “increase the productivity of national forests and grasslands.”

Perdue was joined by Montana Republican gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and a host of other officials and representatives from various agencies and industries, including the Montana Stockgrowers Association and a timber company. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, sent a statement of support from Washington, D.C. as well. The theme of the day was “cutting red tape” and “reducing regulations.”

Environmental groups WildEarth Guardians and The Center For Western Priorities criticized the move as an attack on America’s environmental safeguards.

But Perdue said he was excited about the plan.

“Under this administration, the Forest Service has sold more timber than we have in the last 22 years and made significant increases in our hazardous fuels treatments and active management of our national forests,” Perdue said. “While I am proud of our progress to promote active management, reduce hazardous fuels, work across boundaries and increase the resiliency of our nation’s forests and grasslands, I believe more can be done. Today, I am announcing a blueprint for reforms to provide further relief from burdensome regulations, improve customer service, and boost the productivity of our national forest system.”

The memo directs Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen and her staff to set time limits on the completion of environmental documents, including categorical exclusions, environmental assessments and environmental impact statements. Perdue’s memo also directs the Forest Service to “streamline policy to ensure environmental reviews focus on analysis that is required by law and regulation.”

The Forest Service is now directed to “streamline processes and identify new opportunities to increase America’s energy dominance and reduce reliance on foreign countries for critical minerals.”

Perdue’s direction says forest managers must also “modernize management practices and reduce regulatory burdens to promote active management on Forest Service lands to support and protect rural communities, critical watersheds and species habitat.”

A provision also states that broadband internet development on Forest Service lands must be expedited to increase connectivity in rural America.

The Forest Service must also establish in forest plans that grazing and support for grazing on the National Grasslands is essential for their management within the framework of their governing statues. On national forest lands, the memo states that the permit process for recreational activities needs to be streamlined, and public lands with limited access must be opened to access in cooperation with states, counties and partners where feasible.

In the morning, Perdue showcased the Marshall Woods Project, where the Missoula Ranger District has actively managed about 13,000 acres in the Missoula area, including 266 acres of commercial logging on the Marshall Canyon area that preserved many large trees. Perdue said in the morning that he’d like to replicate the success of the Marshall Woods Project in other forests across the country. He commended Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier and the county staff along with The Nature Conservancy and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for working together on the project.

“This is a visual example of what we’re talking about, well-managed forests versus not-yet-managed forests,” he said. “We’re talking about a forest that’s resilient to fire, better for wildlife, better for recreation, better for beauty, hiking and other multiple uses as well as water quality, and all of that makes a huge difference.”

Missoula District Ranger Jennifer Hensiek said the thinned areas allow firefighters to access places where wildfires start, thus helping control those burns near houses and cities like Missoula.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation both support Perdue’s memorandum, as does Chuck Roady, vice president and general manager of F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber in Columbia Falls.

Daines said in a pre-recorded statement that the memo signifies a new era for America’s national forests and the rural communities that surround them.

“This new plan will ensure that our forests are managed as effectively and efficiently as possible, provide for the health of our forests and our rural economies,” he said. “We must constantly work to protect our public lands and be vigilant, always vigilant, about ensuring we have the proper active management of our national forests.”

Daines said the new direction is especially important this year because Montana’s fire potential is above average.

“And as I always say, if we don’t manage our forest, our forests will manage us,” he said. “And finally we must also work to address these long drawn out environmental reviews further encumbered by litigation. I’ll continue to work with Perdue on this bipartisan legislation that would provide Forest Service with the tools they need to manage our forests and reduce further frivolous lawsuits.”

Gianforte said the memo prioritizes increasing public access to public lands and responsibly boosts productivity of forests and grasslands. He and Daines have long been critics of many environmental lawsuits, and Friday was no different.

“It expedites environmental reviews, a tool too often used to indiscriminately tie up critical forest management projects,” Gianforte said. “(The) memo will put more needed tools in the toolbox. Using these tools will help us prevent catastrophic fires like the one we saw in 2017, because Montanans want to enjoy forests, not breathe them.”

Gianforte said the memo’s guidelines will improve wildlife habitat and reduce severity of fires.

“Expanded grazing opportunities will allow family ranchers, some of whom have been grazing on these lands for generations, to graze more reliably on public lands,” he continued. “The expanded stewardship opportunities provide certainty and longevity required to bring back timber jobs and get more timber on trucks.”

At least one environmental group in Missoula, WildEarth Guardians, slammed the plan.

“When Secretary Perdue and the Trump administration talk about ‘modernizing’ the U.S. Forest Service, what they really mean is undermining our nation’s bedrock environmental laws to facilitate more public lands logging, drilling, mining and grazing with less citizen oversight and less science,” said Sarah McMillan, WildEarth’s conservation director. “The Trump administration’s so-called ‘Modernization Blueprint’ is really just a blueprint for more public lands logging, drilling, mining and grazing at the expense of critical wildlife habitat and clean water.”

According to a New York Times analysis based on research from Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School, the Trump administration has “reversed, revoked or rolled back 60 environmental rules” and another 34 are in progress.

Aaron Weiss, the deputy director of the Denver-based public lands watchdog and advocacy group Center for Western Priorities, said Perdue’s memo “certainly seems like yet another attack on America’s bedrock environmental laws.”

“We have seen the Trump administration, over the last few weeks in particular, unleash more attempts to undermine laws like NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act),” Weiss said. “And the end of the order, which is the most important part, is an emphasis on categorical exclusions. They are an end-run around environmental reviews, and that is exactly what they are doing here. The only good news is the Trump administration has a terrible record in court. They keep losing every time they try to roll back protections.”

But Perdue said the memo’s directions and protecting the environment are not “mutually exclusive.”

“It’s a matter of moving expeditiously while doing things better in the environmental review,” he said. “It’s not cutting corners environmentally. It’s doing things more speedily and getting even the people who want to have advocates in here having their say in a cooperative way and truly good neighbors…we want to build this from the ground up.”