U.S. Forest Service releases final NEPA rule

A final rule published by the U.S. Forest Service has now changed its National Environmental Policy Act regulations to include new exemptions of projects from environmental review.

In addition, the changes include a new process for determining whether a previously completed Forest Service NEPA analysis can satisfy NEPA requirements for subsequent action.

The crux of the changes is new or expanded “categorical exclusions,” which are categories of actions that do not require environmental analysis, since they have historically 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.

“The new categorical exclusions will ultimately improve our ability to maintain and repair the infrastructure people depend on to use and enjoy their national forests — such as roads, trails, campgrounds and other facilities,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in a press release from the agency.

Some of the categorical exclusions were adjusted from those proposed last year, based partly on public input received during a comment period. For example, the maximum categorical exclusion for restoration projects was reduced from 7,300 acres to 2,800 acres. The agency also changed the types of action that could qualify for the restoration and resilience exclusion, removing the salvage harvesting of dead or dying trees.

The final rule was originally scheduled to be released over the summer, but that was delayed in order to allow the USFS to align their changes with guidance issued by the Council on Environmental Quality regarding NEPA implementation across all federal agencies, which was released in July. The agency now plans to reconsider several proposals regarding public engagement requirements, types of projects requiring an environmental impact statement and the use of other agencies’ categorical exclusions, and release additional changes by September 2021.

The final rule was published in the Federal Register on Nov. 19 and took effect immediately. More information about the process of developing the rule can be found here.

Header Image: The U.S. Forest Service released a final rule making changes to its implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act. Credit: BLM Oregon & Washington