Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service posted proposed changes to how it applies the National Environmental Policy Act to many projects on Forest Service lands.
The draft regulations make it clear that agency decision makers should consider the effect of projects on the environment. And the sequence from a categorical exclusion to an environmental impact statement is the process.
As stated in the release, the Forest Service wants “[to] ensure the right amount of environmental analysis to fit the work, locations and conditions.”
The Federal Register Notice mentioned that the Forest Service has a backlog of more than 5,000 special use permits. “The Agency’s goal is to complete project decision making in a timelier manner.”
Part of the future effort will be to reduce redundant analyses, apply previous work to other projects and, hopefully, reduce the analysis time for a project to start.
“We have pored over 10 years of environmental data and have found that in many cases, we do redundant analyses, slowing down important work to protect communities, livelihoods and resources,” said Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen in the press release. “We now have an opportunity to use that information to our advantage, and we want to hear from the people we serve to improve these proposed updates.”
One of the major changes, as reported, will be new “categorical exclusions.” The updates would create a new suite of categorical exclusions, a classification under the NEPA excluding certain routine activities from more extensive, time-consuming analysis associated with an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
The proposed categorical exclusions would be for restoration projects, roads and trails management, and recreation and facility management, as well as special use authorizations that issue permits for outfitters and guides, community organizations, civic groups and others who seek to recreate on national forests and grasslands.
The new categorical exclusions are based on intensive analysis of hundreds of environmental assessments and related data and when fully implemented will reduce process delays for routine activities by months or years, according to the Forest Service press release.
Another major change is the introduction of the concept the Forest Service labels “Determination of NEPA adequacy.” Its intent is to outline a process for determining whether a completed Forest Service NEPA analysis can satisfy NEPA’s requirements for a subsequent proposed action.
The process requires the consideration of several steps. For example, is there similarity between the prior decision and the proposed actions? Is the range of alternatives for the proposed action adequate? Are there any significant new circumstances or information since the prior decision?
The Forest Service will continue providing public notice in the Schedule of Proposed Actions. Added scoping and public engagement opportunities are at the discretion of the responsible official.
Officials at the San Bernardino National Forest would not comment on the possible effect the regulatory changes might have on local projects. They referred the question to the Washington office.