Permitting reform has gained significant attention in Washington in recent months, with reform advocates on both sides highlighting the delays in infrastructure construction caused by red-tape. Such setbacks may be the most immediate effect of burdensome permitting processes, but they aren’t the only one. In fact, they have broader implications for the state of the environment, too, including affecting the Forest Service's ability to sufficiently manage and prevent wildfires.
The most recent National Climate Assessment highlights an overall increase in wildfire risk in the United States, influenced by both climate change and other factors like insufficient forest management. Forests in the Western United States have seen major increases in annual burned area since the mid 1980s, with most of these increases coming from rapidly-spreading mega-fires. With wildfire smoke choking much of the country on a regular if unpredictable basis, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the problem, even for those who live thousands of miles from affected forests. In fact, a recent study showed that smoke from these wildfires is noticeably affecting overall air quality in 41 states.
While climate change is undoubtedly a major contributor to the uptick in catastrophic wildfires, poor forest management also deserves a great deal of the blame. A century of fire suppression has led to a build-up of small trees and underbrush that make wildfires burn more explosively. Forest management, including both controlled burns and mechanical thinning, can substantially reduce the intensity of wildfires, but permitting red tape often prevents an expeditious response.
One solution to this problem, as advocates across many sectors have noted, is reform to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which Congress is now considering.
But permitting bottlenecks extend beyond NEPA. The so-called Cottonwood Decision, for example, threatens to bind the Forest Service in redundant bureaucracy, halting forest management projects before they even reach the permitting phase.
In 2015, the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center (CELC) sued the Forest Service, alleging inadequate assessment of a restoration project's impact on the endangered Canada Lynx. In the end, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service must not only revise forest restoration plans to better accommodate the impact to the Lynx population but also conduct a comprehensive reassessment of its general forest plan. Since the decision, whenever a new species is listed as endangered, a critical habitat is designated, or new information is brought forward about an endangered species, the Forest Service is required to reinitiate consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service on even already-completed forest plans. This has caused the delay of at least 130 forest management projects.
To put this in perspective for those unfamiliar with the intricacy of forest management procedures, the Cottonwood decision is akin to requiring a teacher to revise their entire syllabus because of an error on a single quiz question. The ruling has faced criticism for introducing duplicative processes that drain taxpayer dollars. In a recent letter to Congress, a coalition of conservation groups led by the Property and Environment Research Center emphasized the scope of the impact:
In the absence of a legislative fix, the Forest Service estimates that its work to restore and reduce wildfire risk in 87 forests across the West could grind to a halt as federal agencies waste time and money completing unnecessary and duplicative analysis—taking up to ten years and costing tens of millions of dollars. That’s time and money the agencies should be spending on the ground to restore forests and recover endangered species. No one wins if a species’ habitat goes up in smoke while the Forest Service is bogged down in litigation and paperwork.
After the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling, Congress passed a short-term fix, kicking an ultimate resolution to the Cottonwood decision down the road. But that fix expired in March 2023.
In turn, the Cottonwood Decision and its threat of compliance is once more looming. Earlier this year, Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French appealed to the House Natural Resources Committee to come up with a long-term solution. French estimated that adhering to Cottonwood would force current forest restoration projects to pause for 5–10 years, imposing a crippling financial burden, estimated in tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, and saddling the United States with a deeply dysfunctional forest management process.
Given the urgent and costly nature of compliance with the Cottonwood Decision, it is incumbent upon Congress to pass a comprehensive, long-term solution that streamlines permitting processes and ensures effective forest management. This will not only safeguard our forests but also serve as a prudent investment in the environment, public health, and fiscal responsibility.