WILLIAMS, Ariz. — Under proposed new rules to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the U.S. Forest Service is hoping to streamline its environmental analysis procedures in certain circumstances while still following the requirements laid out in the NEPA.
The proposed new rules were developed, incorporating public comment, to help address challenges that have arisen since NEPA was last updated in 2008.
According a to a fact sheet provided by the USFS, the percent of the agency’s budget dedicated to wildland fire management increased from 16 to 57 percent between 1995 and 2018. Along with that budget shift came a parallel shift in personnel for other programs to fire management. There has been a 39 percent reduction in non-fire personnel since 1995. Since the 2008 update, challenges like extended drought, tree disease and insect infestations have led to a backlog of forest health initiatives like forest, watershed and range restoration projects.
Forest Service spokeswoman Jackie Banks said the proposed rule change introduces a new set of categorical exclusions. Categorical exclusions are activities considered routine, such as restoration projects, roads and trails management, recreation and facility management and special use authorizations. The rule change would allow these tasks to be performed without more extensive analysis while still meeting NEPA guidelines. After decades of study, the USFS found certain activities related to these projects resulted in no significant environmental effects, individual or cumulative.
After a review and analysis of past agency actions and their associated NEPA documentation, input from subject matter experts and a review of other federal agencies’ categorical exclusions, the new rules were developed together with the Council on Environmental Quality.
What kind of projects will be included?
The new and updated categorical exclusions apply to projects considered beneficial to forest health overall, those that mitigate wildland fire risk and maintenance or upgrades to infrastructure, among others. These projects might include forest thinning through commercial timber harvesting, removal of dead or diseased trees, prescribed burns, and maintenance, removal or relocation of campsites or forest roads that are causing damage to resources.
Will I still have an opportunity to comment on proposed actions?
According to Banks, it’s important to remember that the changes are only proposals at this point, and all public comments are encouraged. The rule change was submitted to the federal register June 13, triggering a 60-day comment period. The public is encouraged to submit comments through Aug. 12.
The preferred method for submitting comments is online at https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=FS-2019-0010. The comment section is located next to the proposed rule document under the “Primary Documents” section. A list of supporting documentation is also available for review.
Written comments may also be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by U.S. Mail at NEPA Services Group, c/o Amy Barker, USDA Forest Service, 125 South State Street, Suite 1705, Salt Lake City, UT 84138.
All comments must be received by 11:59 p.m. EST Aug. 12.