The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service (USFS) released proposed changes to modernize how the agency complies with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The proposed updates would not only give the Forest Service the tools and flexibility to manage the land and tackle critical challenges like wildfire, insects, and disease but also improve service to the American people. Revising the rules will improve forest conditions and make it simpler for people to use and enjoy their national forests and grasslands at lower cost to the taxpayer. The revised rules will also make it easier to maintain and repair the infrastructure people need to use and enjoy their public lands—the roads, trails, campgrounds, and other facilities.
While these proposed changes will save time and resources, they are ultimately intended to better protect people, communities and forests from catastrophic wildfire and ensure a high level of engagement with people and communities when doing related work and associated environmental analyses.
“We are committed to doing the work to protect people and infrastructure from catastrophic wildfire. With millions of acres in need of treatment, years of costly analysis and delays are not an acceptable solution – especially when data and experience show us we can get this work done with strong environmental protection standards as well as protect communities, livelihoods and resources,” said Secretary Perdue.
In 2008, the Forest Service codified its procedures for complying with NEPA in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) at 36 CFR 220. However, these regulations, in large part, still reflect the policies and practices established by the agency’s 1992 NEPA Manual and Handbook. When these regulations were adopted in 2008, they were intended to modernize and improve management processes. The proposed rule would further modernize the agency’s NEPA policy by incorporating experience from past 10 years. This experience includes input from comments on the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking from January of 2018, as well as feedback from roundtables, workshops, and input from agency experts.
“We have pored over 10 years of environmental data and have found that in many cases, we do redundant analyses, slowing down important work to protect communities, livelihoods and resources,” said Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. “We now have an opportunity to use that information to our advantage, and we want to hear from the people we serve to improve these proposed updates.”
The updates would create a new suite of “categorical exclusions,” a classification under the NEPA excluding certain routine activities from more extensive, time-consuming analysis under an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement. The proposed categorical exclusions would be for restoration projects, roads and trails management, and recreation and facility management, as well as special use authorizations that issue permits for outfitters and guides, community organizations, civic groups and others who seek to recreate on our national forests and grasslands. The new categorical exclusions are based on intensive analysis of hundreds of environmental assessments and related data and when fully implemented will reduce process delays for routine activities by months or years.
The proposed update is open for public comment for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. Public comments are reviewed and considered when developing the final rule. Instructions on how to provide comments are included in the online notice.
More information on the proposed rule change and how to comment is available on the Forest Service website.