USDA Regulatory Update: Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for Darling 58
ESF's American Chestnut Research & Restoration Project filed a Petition in early 2020 with the USDA-APHIS to request deregulation of the blight-tolerant Darling 58 American chestnut. APHIS is currently conducting a thorough safety review of Darling 58 which, if approved, would represent a substantial milestone toward American chestnut restoration. In conjunction with related research by our colleagues at The American Chestnut Foundation, we hope that American chestnuts can one day be restored their native range throughout eastern US forests.
An initial Open Comment Period for the Petition concluded in October of 2020, and we very much appreciate the support of all who submitted helpful comments! The next step is the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). As expected, APHIS recently issued a brief announcement (referred to as a "Notice of Intent,"" or "NOI") formalizing their plan to write an EIS, and inviting the public to comment on the planned scope for this evaluation. The NOI includes a summary of their overall review process for Darling 58, specific topics they already intend to consider in the EIS (see below), and requests for further information on key points. The full EIS will be a much longer and more detailed document, which will help APHIS make an informed and scientifically rigorous decision regarding deregulation. An additional public comment period will be held once a draft EIS is complete. They expect the EIS and their final regulatory decision to be completed within two years. We welcome this review, and anticipate that the environmental and cultural impacts of planting Darling 58 chestnuts will be overwhelmingly positive.
Compared to the previous round of comments, the public comment period for this NOI is more focused and technical in nature. APHIS's purpose here is to gather any additional topics, data, studies, analyses, or research that should be considered in the upcoming EIS. The NOI states that those who have already submitted comments on the Petition need not resubmit those comments, as they are already being considered in the development of the EIS. However, if you have additional experience, insight, suggestions, or information pertinent to specific areas of interest to APHIS for this EIS, please consider submitting a comment at Regulations.gov. Comments will be accepted through September 7, 2021. They request that comments should be specific, include data or references if possible, and explain how the issue is relevant to the EIS. Topics that have already been identified as relevant to the EIS include:
- Action Area (Historic, Present, and Potential Future Range of American Chestnut)
- Physical Environment (Soil Quality, Water Resources, Air Quality and Climate Change)
- Biological Resources (Animal Communities, Plant Communities, Gene Flow and Weediness, Microorganisms, and Biodiversity)
- Human Health Considerations
- Animal Health and Welfare
- Socioeconomic Considerations (Domestic Economic Environment, International Trade)
- Potential Impacts on Threatened and Endangered Species
- Adherence of the Agency's Decision to Executive Orders, and Environmental Laws and Regulations to Which the Action May be Subject.
As they prepare the EIS, APHIS will assess potential positive and negative effects on society and the environment from deregulating the Darling 58, and effects from alternative options. According to the NOI, the "preferred alternative" is deregulation (approval of our Petition for nonregulated status), and the "no action alternative" is denial of the Petition. APHIS is interested in public feedback on potential impacts from either of these alternatives, or possible inclusion of additional alternatives. More detail about relevant comment topics can be found in the NOI, and a "Commenter's Checklist" with general tips for effective comments is found on the comment submission page.
Availability of blight-tolerant American chestnut trees will be uniquely valuable for those who want to restore the ecological health of our forests. This and other uses of biotechnology for conservation are increasingly important due to continuing threats of new forest pests and pathogens, and the acceleration of climate change. We believe that the Petition directly addresses relevant environmental impacts and demonstrates that forest restoration with a blight-tolerant tree would have tremendous benefits for the environment, for wildlife, and for people. Completion of the EIS is an important step in the regulatory review of the Darling 58 tree. Thank you for your continuing interest and support to restore the American chestnut to its native range!