The U.S. Forest Service recently closed a public review process on proposed revisions to National Environmental Policy Act procedures. The changes in the proposed rule should help USFS better manage sustainable, healthy, and productive national forests and grasslands.
The connection between forest health and watershed health is direct — and of critical importance to our nation and its water users. Forests, particularly those in Western states, provide an abundant source of clean water in the arid West. Headwaters, forests and lands are critical elements of the natural infrastructure that provides water resource benefits to the ecosystem, as well as to farms. Massive wildfires in those headwaters areas of the larger watershed can create significant downstream water quality and quantity effects.
In recent years — catalyzed by the ominous increase in Western wildfire activity — our organization and others have supported efforts to develop a categorical exclusion (CE) under NEPA for covered vegetative management activities carried out to establish or improve habitat for important Western species like greater sage grouse and mule deer.
We are not seeking changes that waive or ignore existing federal environmental laws. We are seeking to eliminate duplicative or unnecessary processes, and use streamlining tools already allowed under the law.
By promoting action instead of litigation, the status quo could be changed. The proposed changes could help government agencies use their limited resources to expeditiously implement land management actions designed to prevent wildfires and improve habitat for priority, endangered and/or threatened species.
USFS last updated its NEPA regulations in 2008. Since then, many challenges 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 new regulations equip USFS with new tools and added flexibility to do more work that readily addresses the worsening conditions we are all seeing on forests and rangelands.
USFS should be commended for a thoughtful and thorough analysis and proposal.
Many of the changes in the proposed rule are based on adding or expanding existing CEs. On average, an environmental assessment takes 687 days to complete. Average time to complete a CE takes just 206 days. With the new rules, USFS could potentially complete NEPA analyses between 30 and 480 days earlier on applicable projects.
There is more work to be done to improve NEPA efficiency on federal lands. For example, federal agencies implementing NEPA have a direct bearing on the success or failure of critically needed Western water supply enhancement projects.
In recent years, Western irrigators and water managers have identified several regulatory impediments they most frequently encounter as they seek to construct infrastructure projects that enhance water supplies. These NEPA “horror” stories are abundant. Those concerns remain, but we look forward to engaging further with USFS to tackle those challenges.
For now, we are encouraged by USFS-focused approach on updating CEs associated with restoration activities, infrastructure activities and special uses.
Keppen is the executive director of the Family Farms Alliance.