By Eric Baker
The U.S. Forest Service is looking to trim the time it takes to analyze some timber sales and other projects by revising its rules that guide implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
The proposed changes, announced this week and described as “bold” in a U.S. Department of Agriculture news release, would add new areas for which shortened analysis, known as categorical exclusions, can be used and reduce the amount of public involvement for qualifying projects. The changes are being pursued to make the agency more flexible in dealing with fire-prone forests, mitigate insect and disease infestations and improve services such as trail and recreation-facility maintenance.
“We are committed to doing the work to protect people and infrastructure from catastrophic wildfire,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. “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.”
The National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, requires federal agencies to carefully examine planned projects to determine if and how they will affect the environment. The process can be lengthy, often taking years. The law also requires agencies to expose their decision-making process to public scrutiny and to seek public comment prior to making decisions on a broad range of actions.
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said the agency leaned on its experience to come up with the proposed changes, which have the potential to bolster the agency’s efforts to reduce big and damaging forest fires.
“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,” she said in the news release.
The updates would give agency officials a suite of new categorical exclusions pertaining to infrastructure projects, restoration work and special-use permits. Under them, the agency could log as much as 4,200 acres within areas of 7,300 acres or fewer, build temporary roads as much as 2.5 miles in length or permanent roads as much as a half-mile long, without producing documents known as environmental analysis or lengthier environmental impact statements. It could also maintain things like roads, trails and bridges, as well as recreation sites and visitor centers, and issue permits to people or organizations using forest land.