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Key changes made to environmental NEPA procedures

dung beetles play significant role in pasture health
Changes provide tools and flexibilities to tackle challenges affecting infrastructure, permitting and natural resources restoration in national forests and grasslands.

The U.S. Forest Service announced new improvements to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that will streamline NEPA reviews and make the process work better for grassland users such as cattle producers. The changes include new tools and flexibilities to tackle critical land management challenges as part of a broader agency effort to better serve the American people through timely, high-quality management decisions affecting infrastructure, permitting and restoration of natural resources in national forests and grasslands, the Forest Service said in a news release.

“These changes will ensure we do the appropriate level of environmental analysis to fit the work, locations and conditions,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. “The new categorical exclusions will ultimately improve our ability to maintain and repair the infrastructure people depend on to use and enjoy their national forests – such as roads, trails, campgrounds and other facilities.”

Categorical exclusions are a type of analysis for certain activities that typically do not have significant environmental effects. The rule establishes new or revised categorical exclusions that eliminate redundant efforts, allowing for previous environmental analyses to be used to support new decisions under certain circumstances, among other efficiencies.

The Forest Service finalized the regulations following its review of extensive public engagement and decades of experience complying with NEPA, one of the nation’s foundational environmental laws. The changes will allow Forest Service officials to concentrate resources on projects that are potentially more complex or have greater public interest while also meeting NEPA requirements and fully honoring the agency’s environmental stewardship and public engagement responsibilities.

Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of natural resources for the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA) and executive director of the Public Lands Council (PLC), said the announcement represents decades of work by livestock producers who have told the Forest Service and other federal agencies for years that NEPA regulations need serious improvement.

Glover said the rule formalizes changes that enable the Forest Service to be a better partner "to ranchers and stakeholders who depend on healthy forests and grasslands. These are commonsense changes that add clarity by streamlining NEPA processes and ensuring that agencies are not spending time on unnecessary duplicative NEPA reviews." She thanked the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service "for following through with this process."

Changes to NEPA under this rule include:

  • Six new categorical exclusions (CEs), including activities related to recreation special uses, administrative sites, recreation sites, restoration and resilience projects and certain road management projects;
  • Consolidating two CEs into one related to existing special uses;
  • Expanding two CEs related to special use authorizations on up to 20 acres of National Forest System lands, and decommissioning authorized and unauthorized roads and trails on National Forest System lands, and
  • Determining the NEPA adequacy process by which a previous environmental analysis may be used for a subsequently proposed action if the prior analysis adequately assesses the impacts of the proposed action and reasonable alternatives.

Glover said the change in determination of NEPA adequacy may be the most important one as it allows the agency to eliminate duplicating reviews. “Any time you don’t have to have unnecessary duplication, that’s good news -- good news for cattle producers, good news for the Forest Service and good news for our grazing and grasslands ecosystems,” Glover said in a podcast interview on the rule.

The changes in the final rule became final on Nov. 19, 2020. More information is available on the Forest Service website.

NCBA and PLC said they will continue to work with Forest Service officials and NEPA experts across the Administration to finalize other components of the 2019 proposed rule, as directed by the updated NEPA regulations finalized by the White House Council on Environmental Quality in July 2020.

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