USDA Forest Service

Pacific Northwest Research Station

Pacific Northwest Research Station
333 SW First Ave.
Portland, OR 97204

(503) 808-2100

US Forest Service


NEPA for the 21st Century: Learning, adjusting, and solving problems

David Seesholtz, Initiative Lead
1249 S Vinnell Way, Suite 200
Boise, ID 83709
Phone: (208) 373-4170

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970. NEPA analysis is one of the most publicly visible functions of the Forest Service, and places considerable demand on the agency's budgets and staff. NEPA also creates opportunities for federal managers and the public to solve common problems, share lessons, and explore creative solutions to environmental issue of the day. The NEPA for the 21st Century project examines these challenges and opportunities.

What is the NEPA for the 21st Century project?

This project is a collaborative effort between Forest Service Research and the Washington Office's Ecosystem Management Coordination staff. We have sought out some of the best policy analysts in the country, and have identified a cadre of academics, consultants, lawyers, and other professionals to help with specific issues related to various aspects about how the Forest Service approaches and accomplished its NEPA responsibilities.

We began our studies by examining how the Forest Service and other organizations work with NEPA. In this set of initial studies, we identified aspects of the NEPA process that work well, aspects that could become more efficient, and aspects that often prove problematic.

As the Forest Service considers ways to improve the outcomes associated with its NEPA process, the goal of this research initiative is to provide information that will inform the development and management of this process. We will identify elements of the process we may be able to improve, as well as elements that are unlikely to change. As we gain insight into individual activities within the NEPA process, we will also develop a holistic view of the agency's approach. Is NEPA being used as a tool for producing informed and transparent decisions? Or is it viewed as a hurdle in the way of expedient management actions? A greater sense of how the agency perceives NEPA will help us find the best solutions as we work to improve the process.

What have we accomplished so far?

NEPA for the 21st Century aims to provide a creditable science basis for policy development and management organizational activities. It also seeks to contribute knowledge by examining the overall system and encouraging the application of this knowledge in learning situations.

We have completed several studies that compare the Forest Service NEPA approach with the approaches of other federal and state agencies. We have also conducted several surveys with Forest Service employees to better understand their perceptions of the process and identify factors that may contribute to success. These surveys have included in-depth interviews with a small set of district rangers as well as a more formal survey completed by over 3,300 employees who perform NEPA activities as part of their normal duties. We have also explored various business and administrative functions associated with improving NEPA processes, including the identification of what is needed to successfully implement large-scale change within an agency and which processes lend themselves to further standardization.

NEPA for the 21st Century has employed a systems approach to NEPA within the Forest Service. Instead of studying the individual pieces of NEPA, this approach recognizes that NEPA is itself a complex subsystem within an even larger system (the Agency). Dealing with this complexity of interactions is difficult, and conventional solutions may only discourage adoption of innovation or change, because desirable outcomes from the existing system may be lost or overlooked.


Our key findings include:

  • Agency personnel currently identify at least three different purposes of NEPA, suggesting that this purpose needs clarification.
  • Unit and staff morale are organizational elements critical for maintaining the capabilities needed to succeed in resource management.
  • Staff competency in NEPA-related activities heavily affects environmental decision-making efficiency and effectiveness.
  • The development of suitable measures and methods for assessing NEPA efficiency will be most productive if focused on multi-dimensional indicators that consider time, cost and stylistic aspects of management.
  • Change alternatives for the NEPA process should take into account how work environment and cultural norms affect decision-making.



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US Forest Service - Pacific Northwest Research Station
Last Modified: Tuesday,26July2016 at16:42:48CDT

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