U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recently sent a memorandum to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen that would serve as a “blueprint” for increasing the productivity of the national forests and grasslands.
“While I am proud of the 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,” said Perdue in the letter. “Today, I am announcing a blueprint for reforms to provide relief from burdensome regulations further, improve customer service, and boost the productivity of our national forests and grasslands.”
The letter directs Chief Christiansen and the Forest Service to identify new opportunities for energy extraction and mineral development, reduce regulatory burdens, expedite broadband development, support and protect rural communities, critical watersheds, and species habitat.
“Our mission delivery today includes a whole range of values and benefits that people expect from their forests and grasslands,” said Christiansen. “The secretary’s direction will help ensure we are providing healthy, resilient forests and grasslands that continue to deliver on the goods and services the American people want and need, while also supporting communities, public access and fire-adapted landscapes.”
To accomplish these goals, Secretary Perdue outlined the following guidelines.
Valuing our grazing heritage, grasslands
The letter recognizes the role of the national grasslands in supporting local rural economies and the role they contribute to producing food. It notes the contribution of ranching families, “who pride themselves as conservationists, ensuring that these lands will remain productive for generations to come.” It calls for:
• Streamlining renewal of range permits and range improvements on the national forests and grasslands; and
• Enhancing flexibility for Forest Service employees to work with ranching families and communities.
Increasing land access
The streamlining of access to the public for recreational activities and forest products includes:
• Opening public access to National Forest System lands with currently limited access where feasible in cooperation with states, counties, and partners; and
• Improving customer service by modernizing and simplifying forest products permitting and the Forest Service land exchange process.
Expediting environmental reviews
The memorandum also seeks to speed up reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by setting time and page limits on key environmental study documents. Perdue writes, “I am directing the agency to further emphasize this effort through greater accountability for efficient decision making, succinct and understandable documentation of compliance, and focused and effective public engagement.” The Forest Service will:
• Set time and page limits on the completion of environmental documents, including categorical exclusions, environmental assessments, and environmental impact statements;
• Streamline policy to ensure environmental reviews focus on analysis that is required by law and regulation; and
• Work across the government to initiate the development of strategies for alternative procedures to streamline consultation processes and environmental reviews, and expedite compliance with State Historic Preservation Offices for vegetation management and facility and infrastructure improvements.
“We appreciate Secretary Perdue’s attention to the value of grasslands, and national forests since lands managed by the Forest Service are critical to public lands ranchers—and communities across the West,” said Kaitlynn Glover, Public Lands Council executive director and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association executive director of natural resources. “The secretary identified that delays in permitting processes are one of the key challenges in [the] management of these landscapes. Inefficient permitting processes delay important on-the-ground management activities, which negatively impacts rangeland health. This memorandum is an important step in fixing that process.” — Charles Wallace, WLJ correspondent