Representative Kristi Noem (R-SD) sent a letter to the U.S. Forest Service Chief and the Chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality renewing a request for them to use their authority to allow for a streamlined National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to fight the spread of pine beetle. The letter also questioned why previous requests have been turned down.
Currently, it often takes over a year for the Forest Service to have the authority to use effective forest management tools to fight the pine beetle, such as thinning, creating buffer zones, and spraying legacy trees. Noem’s letter asks that all options be made available to the Black Hills National Forest to begin forest project implementation faster. Additionally, Rep. Noem has requested a meeting this month to discuss these options before the beetles destroy more trees this August.
In the letter Rep. Noem states, “It is obvious to me that emergency circumstances such as the imminent threat of wildfire and threats to public safety and environmental integrity warrant an emergency response. NEPA regulations allow for federal agencies and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to agree upon alternative arrangements for NEPA compliance to act immediately and aggressively in situations such as those facing the Black Hills National Forest and many other National Forests in the West.”
The letter also sets out a specific list of questions including why “alternative arrangements” have not been granted to the Black Hills National Forest previously, what criteria was used, and what options were available to other areas in emergency situations.
“The pine beetle epidemic is more than a forest issue; it impacts public safety, tourism jobs, and our environment. I am going to continue fighting the bureaucracy in Washington until we get the tools needed to manage our forests effectively,” said Noem.
The full letter can be read below.
July 18, 2011
The Honorable Thomas Tidwell
U.S. Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, DC 20250
The Honorable Nancy Sutley
Council on Environmental Quality
730 Jackson Place, NW
Washington, DC 20503
Chief Tidwell and Chairwoman Sutley:
I am writing to strongly urge you to allow for alternative arrangements for compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) due to the emergency situation of the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the Black Hills National Forest.
The mountain pine beetle is an epidemic that threatens our forests, watersheds, wildlife habitat, scenery, recreation, and tourism. It also greatly increases the potential for catastrophic forest fires. An estimated 384,000 acres – one third – of the 1.2 million acres of National Forest System lands in the Black Hills have been affected by the epidemic since 1998. The infestation is continuing to grow rapidly, doubling from 22,000 new acres affected in 2008 to 44,000 new acres affected in 2009. The beetle infestation has also killed essentially all of the trees in the 13,426 acres of the Black Elk Wilderness, and now threatens Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
I had the opportunity to hear about the problem in-depth during a Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Oversight field hearing on “Impact of the Mountain Pine Beetle Epidemic in the Black Hills.” It was clear from the testimony offered by the Black Hills National Forest Supervisor, the State Forester, landowners, and representatives from local industry that an aggressive and immediate response is needed to what is the largest mountain pine beetle outbreak in the recorded history of the Black Hills. One of the common concerns I hear from constituents is the constant fear of a disastrous wildfire sweeping across the forest that could result in loss of life and devastation to local communities and business owners.
Historically, the Forest Service has demonstrated the ability to respond aggressively to mountain pine beetle outbreaks. As you know, the primary methods used to address the problem are thinning, spraying legacy trees, and creating buffer zones around infected areas. The Black Hills is fortunate to have a robust forest products industry with the ability to implement treatments as fast as the Forest Service can analyze and prepare the projects. As you are well aware, it can take the Forest Service over a year to complete the NEPA analysis, make a decision, and implement projects on the ground. In that time, the pine beetles spread into new areas which the Forest Service cannot act upon until they complete additional analysis and make a new decision. That means no matter how much financial resources are available, the Forest Service is always a step behind the mountain pine beetles.
For example, the Black Hills National Forest has just initiated a new NEPA analysis for 300,000 acres at risk from the mountain pine beetle epidemic using Healthy Forest Restoration Act authorities. However, the Forest Service estimates that they will not sign a Record of Decision and begin implementation until October 2012. By then, there will have been two more flights of mountain pine beetles. This is unacceptable.
We cannot allow these delays with the constant threat of wildfire to public safety and environmental integrity. The federal government has an obligation to manage and maintain its lands, including the Black Hills National Forest and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
It is obvious to me that emergency circumstances such as the imminent threat of wildfire and threats to public safety and environmental integrity warrant an emergency response. NEPA regulations allow for federal agencies and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to agree upon alternative arrangements for NEPA compliance to act immediately and aggressively in situations such as those facing the Black Hills National Forest and many other National Forests in the West.
My understanding is that the Forest Service has previously requested alternative arrangements for the Black Hills National Forest, but the request was not granted. In addition to my request for alternative arrangements, I would appreciate if you could answer the following questions:
- When did the Forest Service request alternative arrangements for the Black Hills National Forest?
- Why was that request for alternative arrangements not granted?
- How many requests have there been for alternative arrangements for National Forest events? How many of these requests were approved and what is the rationale for those that were not granted?
- If threats to public safety do not warrant an emergency response, what criteria are used to make the decision to allow for alternative arrangements? Please provide any documents related to the process for allowing for alternative arrangements.
- What other options are available to the Black Hills National Forests to complete necessary analysis, make a decision, and begin project implementation faster?
- Following Hurricane Katrina, the Forest Service completed an analysis and salvaged millions of board feet of downed timber in around 4 months. In contrast, the current “high priority” Black Hills National Forest Vestal project is expected to take at least a year to complete the analysis and even more time to conduct timber sales, leaving two opportunities for the beetles to destroy healthy areas of forest. What process did the Forest Service use to harvest the downed timber so quickly after Hurricane Katrina?
As the epidemic grows greater with each beetle flight in the summer, it is imperative that we act quickly. Thank you for your time and I look forward to your response by July 31, 2011 to ensure we act before this summer’s beetle flight in August. I also would like to request a meeting with you along with acting Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Doug Crandall to discuss all available options for immediate action before the beetles spread to more areas of healthy forest.
Member of Congress
cc: Harris Sherman, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment
Doug Crandall, Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment
Source: office of Representative Kristi Noem