The Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), PROPOSED REVISIONS to NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT (NEPA) REGULATIONS
Sent in from Green Corner, the Montford Community Newsletter – Mitch Russell
I don’t usually advocate and try to remain politically neutral in this column, but to shut out our voices in a process isn’t American. There is a potential change in the US Forest Service National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, that could have catastrophic consequences. The change could include removing public comments and involvement, as well as not utilizing outside scientific analysis. You may comment using any of the methods at the end of this article, but please do so by August 26 @11:59pm
Pisgah National Forest is the closest to Asheville and in its entire range contains roughly 513,000 acres managed by the Forest Service. There is additional acreage managed by other agencies or entities.
Per the Southern Environmental Law Center the changes could exclude public comment/involvement in:
- Commercially logging up to 4,200 acres (6.6 square miles) at a time;
- Building up to 5 new miles of roads at a time;
- Adding illegally created roads and trails to the official roads and trails systems;
- Closing roads used by the public to access hunting areas, streams for fishing, and trails;
- Bulldozing new pipeline or utility rights of way up to 20 acres (e.g., 4 miles at 40’ across)
As you have read the potential impact to the forests themselves, access to the forests, degradation to mountain streams and damage to surrounding communities could be devastating if the Forest Service is allowed to operate and act in a vacuum without public and outside input. It has the potential to not only change the landscape of WNC but the tourist economy.
Please strongly consider commenting on this potential rule change. Here are the preferred methods:
Visit https://www.regulations.gov/ document?D=FS-2019-0010-0001 & click on Comment Now! to the right of, “This Proposed Rule….”
Mail to: NEPA Services Group, c/o Amy Barker; USDA Forest Service, 125 South State Street, Suite 1705, Salt Lake City, UT 84138
The comment period is until the 26th…Please don’t wait though.
Here’s the link again:
Also a link for general tips on how to submit an effective comment: https://www.regulations.gov/docs/Tips_For_Submitting_Effective_Comments.pdf
Identify credentials and experience that may distinguish your comments from others. If you are commenting in an area in which you have relevant personal or professional experience (i.e., scientist, attorney, fisherman, businessman, etc.) say so.
Agency reviewers look for sound science and reasoning in the comments they receive. When possible, support your comment with substantive data, facts, and/or expert opinions. You may also provide personal experience in your comment, as may be appropriate. By supporting your arguments well you are more likely to influence the agency decision making.
Consider including examples of how the proposed rule would impact you negatively or positively.
Current Revisions to NEPA Procedures (36 CFR 220)
The Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is proposing revisions to its ‘s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations.
These regulations are a key component of how the agency performs environmental analysis and makes decisions. NEPA requires agencies to analyze the environmental effects of proposed actions prior to making decisions. This process helps the Forest Service in its mission to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The Forest Service last updated its NEPA regulations in 2008. Since then, challenges like extended droughts, insect infestations, and diseases have made the effort to protect people, communities, and resources from threats like catastrophic wildfires more difficult due to strain on available staff and resources across all mission areas. The proposed rule is the result of robust input from agency personnel, the public, and other stakeholders. The changes in the proposed rule will help the Forest Service better manage sustainable, healthy, and productive national forests and grasslands. As a result of the changes, the agency will be better able to accomplish important work without sacrificing its commitment to delivering high-quality, science-based analysis. The updates in the proposed rule incorporate lessons learned and experience gained from staff and partners over the past 10 years. Forest Service June 2019 United States Department of Agriculture Proposed rule highlights include that it: • Equips the Forest Service with new tools and added flexibility to do more work that readily addresses the worsening conditions we are all seeing on forests and rangelands. • Ensures the agency does the right amount of environmental analysis to fit the work, locations, and conditions. It reduces redundancy in analysis for similar work, under like conditions. • Adopts proven practices and applies lessons learned from experiences and other agencies. • Adds new categorical exclusions that improve the Forest Service’s ability to maintain and repair infrastructure people need to use and enjoy forests, roads, trails, campgrounds, and other facilities. • Meets both the spirit and intention of the NEPA. The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register on June 13, 2019, which initiates a 60-day public comment period and a minimum 120-day Tribal consultation period. The Forest Service expects to publish the rule revising the NEPA regulations in summer 2020.
Examples of Categorical Exclusions
Many of the changes in the proposed rule are based on adding or expanding existing categorical exclusions. Categorical Exclusions (CEs) are a list of activities that agencies have determined, from analysis and experience, to not have significant environmental impact and, therefore, do not to require extensive environmental analysis. There are exceptions based on extraordinary circumstances, and activities must be within the size and scope of what is described in the CE. If the action does not fit within a category, or if extraordinary circumstances apply, the agency must conduct an environmental assessment to determine whether there are potential significant effects. If the agency finds that the activity will result in no significant effects, a decision can be made to proceed. If significant effects are possible or likely, an environmental impact statement is required to determine how best to serve people in a way that responsibly protects shared natural resources. On average, an environmental assessment takes 687 days to complete. Average time to complete a CE takes just 206 days. By using the new CEs in the proposed rule, the Forest Service could potentially complete analysis between 30 and 480 days earlier on applicable projects. These figures represent the amount of time from when the analysis starts to its completion. The figures do not represent actual days worked on the analysis. They are also based on averages and do not factor in extraordinary circumstances. The CEs covered in the proposed rule fall into three general categories: (1) those covering restoration activities, (2) those covering infrastructure activities, and (3) those covering special uses. Some examples of the types of work that could be approved, based on hundreds of analyzed environmental assessments, are listed below. Restoration projects— Removing trees affected by insects or disease through commercial timber harvest in combination with stream restoration in a 4,200-acre area to improve forest health and watershed conditions is one example of a restoration project. Restoration projects could also include reducing overgrown areas around a community and improving wildlife habitat through mechanical thinning and use of prescribed burning. Infrastructure projects— An example of an infrastructure project would be the decommissioning of several miles of poorly located and difficult-to-maintain roads or trails that are causing resource damage. Another example would be a project to relocate, build, and decommission campsites along a forest road or in a developed campground to improve visitor safety and convenience or to improve natural resource conditions. Special uses and permitting— One example would be issuing a special-use authorization to build a water pipeline and storage tank for an area with poor water supply and quality. Another would be authorizing development or improvements for a communication site. Yet, another example would be authorizing an outfitter to lead guided hikes on a popular hiking trail. In each of these examples, and based on analysis of similar projects, the necessary environmental review to authorize these types of important activities could be completed in less time with reduced process while maintaining important environmental safeguard