The Bureau of Land Management is punching holes in the National Environmental Policy Act big enough to drive a 30-ton thumper truck through.

In January, the BLM proposed adding 11 new categorical exclusions to the 73 already existing. The designation, used for projects routinely found to have no significant environmental impact, allows the agency to sidestep NEPA-mandated studies and public comment. The Forest Service proposed similar exemptions for oil and gas projects in December, despite an earlier court ruling that limited the agency’s use of such exemptions (HCN, 10/31/05: Forest Service tries to teach greens a lesson).

Under the new exclusions, the BLM could approve salvage logging projects of up to 250 acres, grant or renew grazing permits, and allow energy exploration — including the use of seismic testing trucks — when no road construction is involved. These exclusions alone could affect more than 235 million acres of public land, environmental groups say.

The changes will speed up the approval process and let the BLM focus on studying projects with larger impacts, says agency spokeswoman Heather Feeney. Activities that might harm endangered species, wilderness, historic and cultural resources, wetlands or prime farmlands would still trigger a full environmental assessment.

But conservationists say the proposals — like the batch of categorical exclusions wrapped in last year’s energy bill — slam the door on public involvement. "They’re telling people, ‘It’s none of your business, we don’t have to keep you informed,’ " says Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society.

The public comment deadline is Feb. 24. For more information, see www.blm.gov/planning/news.html .