The U.S. Forest Service to update its NEPA rules

The U.S. Forest Service is updating the regulations that govern the agency’s compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, citing a desire to increase efficiency and ensure wise use of its financial and human resources.

The proposed changes aim to increase the efficiency with which the Forest Service conducts the environmental reviews required by NEPA. According to the agency, the changes are needed because they are unable to adequately perform these reviews and be responsive to the public. The proposal cites two main reasons for the current situation: the high percentage of the agency’s budget that is devoted to fire suppression and the high demand for permits for activities on national forests. Currently, USFS has a backlog of more than 5,000 permit applications awaiting environmental analysis.

The proposal would create new “categorical exclusions,” which are categories of actions that do not require environmental analysis when proposed in future action since they historically have been found not to result in significant environmental impacts. The new categorical exclusions will apply to restoration projects such as removing disease-killed trees or restoring streams, infrastructure activities such as removing old roads or trails, and special uses and permitting activities such as authorizing development or outfitters and guides.

Another proposed change includes codifying the definition of “condition-based management.”  The Service already uses the concept, often for landscape scale projects and analysis. The proposal would provide a consistent definition of the term: a system of management practices based on implementation of specific design elements from a broader proposed action, where the design elements vary according to a range of on-the-ground conditions in order to meet intended outcomes.

In addition, the proposal would outline a new approach to “right-sizing” public engagement and scoping processes for proposed actions. This approach would encourage agency decision-makers to engage the public and other partners early in the project and frequently throughout.

The Forest Service’s goal is “to complete project decision making in a timelier manner, improve or eliminate inefficient processes and steps, and, where appropriate, increase the scale of analysis and the number of activities in a single analysis and decision,” according to the proposal. “Improving the efficiency of environmental analysis and decision making will help the agency ensure that lands and watersheds are sustainable, healthy, and productive; mitigate wildfire risk; and contribute to the economic health of rural communities through use and access opportunities.”

The Service began this effort in Jan. 2018, publishing an “advance notice of proposed rulemaking” to alert stakeholders about the effort and solicit comments on the concept of updating the agency’s NEPA regulations. The agency received over 34,000 comments in response to the notice, which it considered as it developed this proposal.

As part of this effort to increase efficiency, the Forest Service is also planning revisions to its handbook, which provides explanatory guidance interpreting CEQ and Forest Service procedures in regulation, and its manual, which provides descriptions of Forest Service NEPA authority, objectives, policy and responsibilities. These changes will be published separately in the Federal Register.

The Forest Service has developed a website with additional information about the changes, beyond the proposal published in the Federal Register. The Service is accepting comments on the proposed changes until Aug. 12.

Header Image: The Forest Service is proposing changes to its environmental review process to allow is to better prevent wildfire, among other reasons. ©Josh O’Connor/USFWS