Forest Service seeks comment on work to increase efficiency of National Environmental Policy Act com

As many of you are aware the current administration has a stated goal of streamlining the preparation of environmental compliance (National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA]) documents and making the environmental permitting process faster and more efficient. This has been evident through a number of Secretary of the Interior (SoI) Orders and guidance devoted to this issue. The intent behind this is to foster infrastructure and energy development. To my knowledge, none of the Department of the Interior DoI land management agencies, e.g. BLM, NPS, USFWS.. have developed their own internal orders implementing the SoI guidance to streamline NEPA. However, based on my current experience this guidance will be forthcoming in the near future. Already I am seeing a push within BLM to shorten NEPA documents significantly.

The press release below from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) indicates that now the Department of Agriculture is following the DoI lead in looking for ways to streamline and shorten the NEPA process. As with the BLM and other agencies, it remains to be seen how the USFS will implement changes but it bears close watching. I hope that the end result of this is that agencies and NEPA practitioners are able to focus on resources that are truly affected by a federal action and that some of the extraneous analysis is forced to be removed. Given the complexity of some projects, e.g. long linear transmission and transportation projects and large scale energy projects, and the litigious nature of our society, I think this will be a difficult challenge to overcome. Only time will tell.

JANUARY 3, 2018 AT 1:30 PM EST - USDA Forest Service seeks public comment on its work to improve an often costly, lengthy process to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when making land management decisions.

“Our efforts to improve our processes are rooted in our desire to be more responsible for the land we manage and more responsive to the people we serve,” said USDA Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke. “We will continue to deliver science-based, high-quality analysis as we work to make better decisions in a timelier manner. We are focused on our core mission to achieve quality land management for multiple uses of national forests and grasslands.”

The public has until Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 to comment on the advance notice of proposed rulemaking published in the Federal Register(link is external). Instructions about how to comment are included in the online notice. The notice can be accessed on the Federal Register through this link: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/01/03/2017-28298/national-environmental-policy-act-compliance(link is external).

The Forest Service seeks public comment on how it, under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, can:

  • Increase efficiency in moving through the NEPA process.

  • Improve application of the NEPA process on landscape-scale restoration projects.

  • Determine which types of activities could undergo an abbreviated NEPA review because they pose minimal effects on natural resources, such as certain restoration projects, special use authorizations, and activities to maintain and manage sites, facilities and associated infrastructure.

  • Improve coordination with other agencies on multi-agency projects.

Our review of how we comply with NEPA is part of a larger effort by the Forest Service to evaluate our environmental analysis and decision-making process. The Forest Service’s capacity to complete environmental analysis needed to make decisions is at its lowest level in decades, largely due to the increased costs of dealing with longer, more intensive wildfire seasons. In addition, more than 80 million acres of land the Forest Service manages is in urgent need of treatment to mitigate risk for fire, insect and disease infestation.

Thus, a substantial backlog of forest, watershed, and range restoration projects exists. Additionally, the majority of environmental decisions that the Forest Service makes authorizes special use permits, of which more than 6,000 are awaiting completion. This affects more than 7,000 businesses and 120,000 jobs.

The Forest Service must improve its efficiency in these areas in order to fully meet the expectations of the American public to increase the health and productivity of our national forests and grasslands. National forests and grasslands are working lands that provide a multitude of benefits to the American public, from forest products like wood and food, to opportunities for world-class recreational experiences that also provide health benefits. Forest Service programs and work contribute to 360,000 jobs and more than $30 billion in gross domestic product.

For more information about the USDA Forest Service visit http://www.fs.fed.us/.

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