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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.
The HFI expedites administrative procedures for hazardous-fuel reduction and ecosystem-restoration projects on Federal land. The administrative actions undertaken through the HFI include:
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.
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.
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.
The DOI BLM added regulations so wildland fire management decisions can be effective immediately when:
The regulations also expedite administrative review of those decisions. This rule supplements existing full force and effect regulations for forest management (43 CFR 5003).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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