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The Healthy Forests Initiative and Healthy Forests Restoration Act
Interim Field Guide

The Administration launched the HFI in 2002 to reduce barriers to the timely removal of hazardous fuel. Sixteen months later, Congress passed the HFRA to reduce delays and remove statutory barriers for projects (figures 3 and 4) that reduce hazardous fuel and improve forest health and vigor. Other provisions of the HFRA are designed to address forest and rangeland health on private lands.

Photograph of a worker conducting a prescribed burn to reduce fuels.
Figure 3—Prescribed fire is one of the tools resource managers use
to reduce fuel and improve forest and range conditions. This burn was
conducted at the DOI BLM’s Lower Snake River District in Idaho.

Healthy Forests Initiative

The HFI expedites administrative procedures for hazardous-fuel reduction and ecosystem-restoration projects on Federal land. The administrative actions undertaken through the HFI include:

NEPA Categorical Exclusions

New categorical exclusion categories allow certain fuel-treatment projects (such as mechanical thinning and prescribed fires) and rehabilitation projects after a fire (such as reseeding and tree planting) to proceed in full compliance with NEPA, but without lengthy environmental and sociological documentation. The new categorical exclusions require agencies to identify projects through a public process undertaken in collaboration with State and local governments, Tribes, landowners, and other interested persons and community-based groups.

Guidance for Environmental Assessments of Forest Health Projects

The DOI and the USDA Forest Service continue to use new guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality to conduct environmental assessments for fuel reduction and to restore fire-adapted ecosystems. Fifteen pilot fuel-treatment projects were begun using this guidance. Additional direction and helpful hints to improve environmental assessments (EAs) will be available by the summer of 2004.

Photograph of a mechanical harvest in process within a forest setting.
Figure 4—Mechanical harvests can successfully remove smaller
biomass material while leaving larger trees.

USDA Forest Service Appeals Rule Amendments

The USDA amended the rules for project appeals to hasten the review of forest health projects. Early and meaningful public participation in the decisionmaking process benefits communities and makes the appeals process less cumber­some. Early public participation will result in timely project decisions and allow faster implementation.

DOI BLM Full Force and Effect Regulations

The DOI BLM added regulations so wildland fire management decisions can be effective immediately when:

  • Vegetation, soil, or other resources on public lands are at substantial risk of wildland fire because of drought, fuel buildup, or for other reasons, or

  • Public lands are at immediate risk of erosion or other damage because of wildland fire.

The regulations also expedite administrative review of those decisions. This rule supplements existing full force and effect regulations for forest management (43 CFR 5003).

DOI Appeals Rules Amendments

The DOI Office of Hearings and Appeals amended rules in order to expedite its review of wildland fire management decisions. The rule changes allow the DOI BLM to place wildland fire management decisions in effect immediately in certain situations and require the appeals board to decide appeals on a strict time schedule. The rule changes also require those appealing a project to have raised the objection during the public comment period on the project.

New Endangered Species Act Procedures

On January 7, 2004, joint Endangered Species Act (ESA) counterpart regulations of the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce became effective. The regulations make the consultation process more effective under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act for projects within the scope of the National Fire Plan, while maintaining protection for threatened and endangered species. The new process provides an alter­native to informal consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries on actions determined “not likely to adversely affect” any listed species or designated critical habitat. It also enables the USFWS and NOAA Fisheries to focus their limited resources on consultations that are likely to have some adverse effects on endangered species. Implementation of counterpart regulations awaits development of an interagency agreement establishing training and experience criteria for managers in the action agencies who will be using the new process.

In addition to the joint counterpart regulations, the Director of the USFWS and the assistant administrator for fisheries at NOAA issued guidance to their regional offices on two aspects of consultation under Section 7 of the ESA. The first directive, issued on October 11, 2002, stresses the need to work with the action agencies to make the Section 7 consultation process more effective. The second directive, issued on December 10, 2002, provides additional guidance to regional offices, requiring an evaluation of the net long-term benefit of hazardous-fuel treatment projects.

Stewardship Contracting

Congress has enacted legislation expanding stewardship contracting authority with communities, the private sector, and others, allowing the USDA Forest Service and DOI BLM to enter into long-term contracts (up to 10 years) to meet land-management objectives (for example, to reduce wildland fire risk and improve forest and rangeland health). Stewardship contracts focus on producing desirable results on the ground that improve forest and rangeland health and provide benefits to communities. Among other things, the new stewardship contracting authority allows forest products to be exchanged for ecological restoration services, which may include thinning and removing brush.

DOI Administrative NEPA Improvements

The DOI is incorporating administrative improvements and existing best practices into its NEPA processes Department-wide. These improvements, which can be applied under the HFI and the HFRA, are intended to reduce conflict and enhance public participation. The reforms cover a number of areas, including: consensus-based management, public participation, community-based training, use of integrated analysis, adaptive management, and tiered and transferred analysis. Each of these concepts is aimed at ensuring that the field staff has the tools to tailor their approach to the NEPA process to local needs and interests.

Healthy Forests Restoration Act

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-148) contains a variety of provisions to expedite hazardous-fuel reduction and forest-restoration projects on specific types of Federal land that are at risk of wildland fire or insect and disease epidemics. The act helps rural communities, States, Tribes, and landowners restore healthy forest and rangeland conditions on State, Tribal, and private lands. It also:

  • Encourages biomass removal from public and private lands

  • Provides technical, educational, and financial assistance to improve water quality and address watershed issues on non-Federal lands

  • Authorizes large-scale silvicultural research

  • Authorizes acquisition of Healthy Forest Reserves on private land to promote recovery of threatened and endangered species, and improve biodiversity and carbon sequestration

  • Directs the establishment of monitoring and early warning systems for insect or disease outbreaks

Title I provides authorities for expedited vegetation treatments on certain types of NFS and BLM lands that are at risk of wildland fire; have experienced wind throw, blowdown, or ice-storm damage; are currently experiencing disease or insect epidemics; or are at imminent risk of such epidemics because of conditions on adjacent land. This title:

  • Provides expedited environmental analysis of HFRA projects

  • Provides administrative review before decisions are issued on proposed HFRA projects on NFS lands

  • Contains requirements governing the maintenance and restoration of old-growth forest stands when the USDA Forest Service and DOI BLM carry out HFRA projects in such stands

  • Requires HFRA projects on NFS and BLM land to maximize retention of larger trees in areas other than old-growth stands, consistent with the objective of restoring fire-resilient stands and protecting at-risk communities and Federal lands

  • Requires collaboration between Federal agencies and local communities, particularly when Community Wildfire Protection Plans are prepared

  • Requires using at least 50 percent of the dollars allocated to HFRA projects to protect communities at risk of wildland fire

  • Requires performance to be monitored when agencies conduct hazardous-fuel reduction projects and encourages multiparty monitoring that includes communities and other diverse stakeholders (including interested citizens and Tribes)

  • Encourages courts to expedite judicial review of legal challenges to HFRA projects

  • Directs courts that consider a request for an injunction on an HFRA-authorized project to balance the short- and long-term environmental effects of undertaking the project against the effects of taking no action

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