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

Environmental Analysis Requirements for HFI and HFRA Projects

The process for accomplishing hazardous-fuel reduction and vegetation-restoration projects on Federal lands can be improved, while maintaining appropriate environmental standards and collaborating with communities and interested publics. Agencies need to provide the time and opportunity for public collaboration. When undertaking projects, managers must focus on the ecological processes that provide healthy, resilient ecosystems and that support healthy human communities. Making some NEPA procedures more efficient does not reduce our obligation to complete appropriate environmental evaluation, nor must it shortchange the right of the public to understand agency proposals and provide their views to Federal agencies on matters affecting public lands.

Collaboration with communities and the public is the cornerstone of A Collaborative Approach for Reducing Wildland Fire Risks to Communities and the Environment: 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan (May 2002). While some procedural requirements have been expedited, all existing environmental statutes remain in place.

Healthy Forests Initiative

On August 22, 2002, President Bush established the Healthy Forests Initiative, directing the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior, and the Council on Environmental Quality, to improve regulatory processes to ensure more timely decisions, greater efficiency, and better results in reducing the risk of catastrophic wildland fires. On June 5, 2003, the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior adopted two new categorical exclusions from documentation in an EA or environmental impact statement (EIS): an exclusion for hazardous-fuel reduction and another for rehabilitation of resources and infrastructure damaged by wildfire (68 FR 33814).

Categorically Excluding Hazardous-Fuel-Reduction Actions

To be categorically excluded from documentation in an EA or EIS, a proposed hazardous-fuel-reduction action must meet the following requirements:

  • Hazardous-fuel-reduction activities using prescribed fire can be categorically excluded if they do not include more than 4,500 acres. Activities using mechanical methods for crushing, piling, thinning, pruning, cutting, chipping, mulching, and mowing can be categorically excluded if they do not include more than 1,000 acres. Such activities:

    • Shall be limited to areas in the wildland-urban interface or to areas in Condition Classes 2 or 3 in Fire Regime Groups I, II, or III outside the wildland-urban interface.

    • Shall be identified through a collaborative framework as described in A Collaborative Approach for Reducing Wildland Fire Risks to Communities and the Environment: 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan.

    • Shall be consistent with agency and departmental procedures and applicable resource management plans.

    • Shall not be in wilderness areas or impair the suitability of wilderness study areas for preservation as wilderness.

    • Shall not include the use of herbicides or pesticides or the construction of new permanent roads or other new permanent infrastructure, but may include the sale of vegetative material if the primary purpose of the activity is to reduce hazardous fuel.

  • Rehabilitation activities after wildland fires can be categorically excluded if they are less than 4,200 acres. These activities are to repair or improve lands unlikely to recover to a management-approved condition after being damaged by a wildland fire, or to repair or replace minor facilities damaged by fire. Such activities include planting trees, replacing fences, restoring habitat, restoring heritage sites, repairing roads and trails, and repairing damage to minor facilities. These activities:

    • Shall be consistent with agency and departmental procedures and applicable resource management plans

    • Shall not include the use of herbicides or pesticides or the construction of new permanent roads or other new permanent infrastructure

    • Shall be completed within 3 years after a wildland fire

Before a proposed action that meets these criteria can be categorically excluded, the proposal must be reviewed sufficiently to determine that no extraordinary circumstances (USDA Forest Service) or exceptions (DOI BLM) exist. Direction for USDA Forest Service extraordinary circumstances is found in FSH 1909.15 Section 30.3. DOI BLM direction for exceptions is found in 516 DM 2 appendix 2.

Categorically excluded USDA Forest Service actions are not subject to administrative appeal (36 CFR 215.4). Categorically excluded DOI BLM actions are subject to notification, protest, and administrative appeal (43 CFR part 4, as modified by 43 CFR 5003.1 and 43 CFR 4190.1).

More information on categorical exclusion of hazardous-fuel-reduction projects is available at: http://www.fs.fed.us/emc/hfi or http://elips.doi.gov/elips/release/3511.htm.

Categorical exclusions for some vegetation management actions may be available under other authorities. While the projects eligible for such categorical exclusions are designed primarily for objectives other than treatment of hazardous fuel, fuel reduction may be an important secondary benefit. Review the appropriate agency guidance to determine whether such exclusions apply to specific projects. Additional information on USDA Forest Service categorical exclusions is available at: http://fsweb.wo.fs.fed.us/hfra/.

Environmental Assessments

The Council on Environmental Quality provided new guidance for the preparation of EAs for fuel reduction and fire-adapted ecosystem-restoration projects in December 2002. The guidance included a general outline and made the following major points:

  • The EA should be “a concise public document,” no longer than 10 to 15 pages, that addresses four elements: need for the proposed action, description of alternatives, description of the environmental impacts of the proposed action and the alternatives, and a list of the agencies and persons consulted.

  • The EA should reference any supporting data, inventories, and other documents that were relied on in its presentation.

  • Interested agencies and the public must be involved in EA preparation to the extent practicable.

  • When a Finding of No Significant Impact is prepared, the EA should be attached and incorporated by reference.

  • When the EA and Finding of No Significant Impact are ready, reasonable public notice of their availability must be provided.

  • If an EIS is needed, a Notice of Intent must be published describing the proposed action and alternatives, the scoping process, and the name of the agency contact.

Healthy Forests Restoration Act

Section 104 of the HFRA establishes special procedures when agencies prepare EAs or EISs for authorized hazardous-fuel-reduction projects. Categorical exclusions cannot be used for projects authorized under Title I of the HFRA. Except for the act’s authorization to analyze fewer NEPA alternatives (Sections 104(c) and (d)), most of the requirements of Section 104 are consistent with normal NEPA practices.

Section 104(e) of the HFRA requires agencies to provide notice of the project and conduct a public meeting when preparing authorized hazardous-fuel-reduction projects.

Section 104(f) encourages meaningful public participation during preparation of authorized hazardous-fuel-reduction projects. The USDA Forest Service and DOI BLM shall facilitate collaboration when they are preparing authorized hazardous-fuel-reduction projects. As appropriate, collaboration should include representatives from Tribes, local representatives from Federal and State agencies, local governments, landowners, other interested persons, community-based groups, and other nongovernmental organizations. Local involvement is critical when planning projects, setting project priorities, and allocating resources at the local level. Agencies need to plan ahead to provide adequate time for collaboration.

For all EAs completed under the HFRA, USDA Forest Service and DOI BLM offices must use the Guidance for Environmental Assessments for Forest Health Projects provided in a December 9, 2002, memorandum from the Council on Environmental Quality, available for review at: http://www.fire.blm.gov/ea_sites/guidance/g_CEQmemo.pdf.

Developing the Proposed Action and Alternatives

Authorized hazardous-fuel-treatment projects under the HFRA cannot take place in any of the following:

  • Wilderness areas

  • Wilderness study areas

  • Areas where the removal of vegetation is prohibited by an act of Congress or Presidential proclamation (including prohibitions in the area’s implementation plan)

All proposed HFRA actions must be consistent with the applicable resource management plans and they must be on lands managed by the USDA Forest Service or DOI BLM. This means that any proposed action that would not be consistent with a resource management plan must be: modified to make it consistent with the plan, or be covered by a plan amendment or project-specific amendment.

For areas inside the wildland-urban interface and within 11/2 miles of the boundary of an at-risk community, the USDA Forest Service and DOI BLM are not required to analyze any alter­native to the proposed action, with one exception:

If the at-risk community has adopted a Community Wildfire Protection Plan and the proposed action does not implement the recommendations in the plan regarding the general location and basic method of treatments, agencies are required to analyze the recommendations in the plan as an alternative to the proposed action (Sections 104(d)(2) and (3)).

Agencies are not expected to develop a full no-action alter­native. However, they should evaluate the effects of failing to implement the project.This information will be useful if courts consider requests for an injunction and must balance the short-and long-term effects of taking or failing to take an action. See the Judicial Review section for more detailed guidance.

For areas within the wildland-urban interface, but farther than 11/2 miles from the boundary of an at-risk community, the USDA Forest Service and DOI BLM are not required to analyze more than the proposed agency action and one additional action alternative (Section 104(d)(1)). Agencies are expected to analyze the effects of failing to take action.

For authorized HFRA projects in all other areas, analyses must describe the proposed action, a no-action alternative, and an additional action alternative, if one is proposed during scoping or the collaborative process. If more than one additional alternative is proposed, the agency will select one and provide a written record describing the reasons for its selection (Section 104(c)).

Decision Diagrams

Several diagrams on the following pages have been prepared to help managers use the HFI and HFRA authorities. These diagrams summarize the requirements of the laws, but do not substitute for a careful review of the laws themselves.

Decision Diagram Key: Using Decision Diagrams With the Field Guide

Graphic icon indicating an Adobe Acrobat PDF (portable document format) Decision Diagrams in Adobe PDF format—best for printing (265 KB)

Get the Free Adobe Acrobat Reader software. Click the icon to download a free version of Adobe Acrobat Reader.

The Web Guide available at http://fsweb.wo.fs.fed.us/hfra/webguide.shtml provides an accessible version of the decision-making process outlined in these decision diagrams for: 1) categorical exclusion under the Healthy Forests Initiative (HFI); and 2) Environmental Assessments (EA) or Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA).

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