Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday, alleging that the agency is violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by continually denying requests to access records about new rules that reduce requirements for environmental analysis and public input.
The requests center around the Forest Service’s use of ‘categorical exclusions.’ Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), government agencies must take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of a proposed project and must involve the public in its decision-making process. Categorical exclusions, however, allow the agency to bypass basic NEPA requirements and authorize activities with minimal environmental analysis and public involvement. Typically, these exclusions have been used for projects with insignificant environmental impacts, like painting buildings at a campground.
However, just before leaving office, the Trump administration dramatically expanded the agency’s categorical exclusion program. The new rules allow for the Forest Service to approve up to 2,800 acres of logging, roadbuilding, and ‘special uses’ like pipeline construction with little to no environmental analysis or public input.
“These new categorical exclusions would shut the public out of a key process to give them a say in how our public lands are used,” said Ben Prater, Southeast program director at Defenders of Wildlife. “The Forest Service’s refusal to provide any information about when and where it will use the new categorical exclusions is all the more chilling.”
The lawsuit focuses on three separate, unresolved FOIA requests, which each seek information about the creation and implementation of the Forest Service’s expanded categorical exclusions. The oldest of these requests has been pending for nearly three years. Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center joined forces in the litigation after the Forest Service’s cavalier dismissal of the most recently submitted FOIA request. The agency’s continued refusal to hand over these important records violates federal law.
“If the Forest Service isn't going to take its FOIA obligations seriously, the agency can expect us to take them to court,” said SELC Senior Attorney Susannah Knox. “It’s past time for the agency to reverse course and embrace transparency rather than shun it.”
The requested records will help the public obtain information about projects that was previously available during the NEPA process and will shed light on how the Forest Service is using the new categorical exclusions. The Forest Service is responsible for managing some of the nation’s most accessible and incredible public lands, and the public deserves to know how these areas are being run.