Break trail, not public processes. If you want to have a voice in the management of public lands, now is the time to speak louder than ever. Photo Credit: Thomas Woodsen
Have you ever commented on a winter travel plan, forest plan revision, or other Forest Service project? You were able to do it because of a law known as the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
Right now, the Forest Service is considering some broad, potentially devastating changes to how it implements NEPA that could drastically reduce your ability to have a voice over your public lands. Under the guise of increasing efficiency in environmental decision-making, the agency is proposing to create loopholes that would fast-track logging, road building, and other development on public land and cut back or eliminate public participation on the vast majority of all Forest Service projects.
NEPA was enacted in the 1970s to ensure that government agencies make informed and transparent decisions. It gives the American public a voice in agency decision-making. Among other things, NEPA is the law that ensures that you have a say in how public lands are managed. NEPA is arguably the most important environmental law in the U.S. since it requires agencies – like the Forest Service – to alert the public and evaluate the potential impacts on the environment, recreation, and more when considering whether to approve a project or make changes in how public lands are managed. It’s what puts the public in public lands.
Industry groups who know their actions have a big effect on the environment would like to see NEPA rolled back to make it easier and faster for them to develop public lands. However, changes to NEPA could come at a big cost for the environment and for your ability to participate in decisions around public lands and waters.
The Forest Service is accepting comments on their proposed changes until August 12. We’ve made it easy to submit a comment directly to the Forest Service and would encourage everyone who cares about public lands to do so.
Here are some more details about what’s going on. If you really want to dig deep, click here to head over to the Forest Service website and read the full proposal.
Due to budget and staffing cuts, staff turnover, and inconsistencies in how NEPA is utilized across the Agency, the Forest Service is not always the most efficient when undertaking a NEPA analysis. However, rather than addressing these real and solvable issues, the Forest Service is proposing to gut NEPA in order to fast-track industrial and extractive development.
First, Understand the Levels of NEPA Analysis
There are three levels of NEPA analysis: categorical exclusion, environmental assessment, and environmental impact statement. We could write a whole book on these, but the biggest differences have to do with how much information is collected and analyzed, and how much you get to be involved in the decision-making process.
Categorical exclusions involve a cursory amount of analysis and limited opportunity for public comment, while environmental assessments and environmental impact statements are increasingly more detailed, require more analysis, and have more opportunities for public involvement. Generally, the more complex the project the more detailed the NEPA analysis.
Why Scoping Is a Big Deal
One really concerning thing about the Forest Service’s proposed revisions has to do with scoping. They’re seeking to eliminate the current requirement to conduct scoping for projects being considered under a categorical exclusion or environmental assessment. This means you’d be kept in the dark on up to 98% of Forest Service projects.
Scoping is a key process that informs the public that a land management agency is considering changes, and is the only opportunity for the public to weigh in on a project that is “categorically excluded” from analysis. Let’s go back to 2017, when the Wasatch Powderbird permit was renewed using a Categorical Exclusion. Under the current regulations, the Forest Service had to go through scoping and thus inform the public that the permit was up for renewal. This gave us and the entire backcountry community a chance to weigh in. Almost 300 people submitted comments. In the end, our fuss didn’t lead to the change backcountry skiers had hoped for in the final decision. But the bigger point is that, because the public process was transparent, we had the opportunity to voice our concerns—and that’s the crucial part we need to fight for now.
Scoping is also important for environmental assessments, because it gives the public an opportunity to weigh in on a project at the very beginning, and alerts people to the fact that the Forest Service is considering a project in the first place. Recently, the Forest Service wrote a winter travel plan for a portion of the Sawtooth National Forest using an environmental assessment. Scoping afforded a public comment period, which gave us, along with other conservation groups and members of the public, the opportunity to share information with the Forest Service early in the process. We documented important wildlife areas: namely, wolverine dens and mountain goat winter range areas. As a result, the final plan protects important wildlife areas, while still designating lots of terrain for snowmobiling.
Loopholes in the Law
The proposed changes to NEPA would also eliminate public input beyond scoping. The Forest Service is proposing to adopt seven new Categorical Exclusions and expand two existing Categorical Exclusions. These are essentially loopholes that allow projects to move forward without environmental review or public comment (except scoping, which they’re also hoping to get rid of). These new Categorical Exclusions include authorizing up to 6.6 square miles of commercial logging; converting illegal off-road vehicle routes to official Forest Service roads and trails, and building new roads – all without any public input or environmental analysis.
The Threat to Pending Environmental Protections
The Forest Service is also proposing to eliminate important protections for Inventoried Roadless Areas and potential Wilderness Areas. Currently, if a project is proposed in either of these types of areas, it must be analyzed with an Environmental Impact Statement. Under the proposed revisions, logging and other projects in these sensitive areas could be done under a Categorical Exclusion, shielding them from public scrutiny and environmental analysis.
Relying on Outdated Information to Make Big Decisions
Finally, the Forest Service is proposing a new way of dodging environmental analysis and public input. They’re calling it a “determination of NEPA adequacy,” or DNA. Using a DNA, the Forest Service could claim that an existing NEPA analysis can be applied to a new, different project and therefore no further analysis or public input is necessary. This is a problem because the prior analysis could be outdated, or it may not consider current outdoor recreation activities or changing landscapes, and therefore it wouldn’t have considered or analyzed the specific impacts of the new project.
If these revisions go through, you’ll be in the dark about most Forest Service projects. You may not even know that your local forest is considering building a new road or approving a new logging project, and litigation will be your only option for speaking up for the public lands you value. Cutting corners and disenfranchising the public is no way to manage our national forests.
The Forest Service is accepting public comments on these proposed revisions until August 26. It’s incredibly important that they hear from you about how these revisions would affect your ability to participate in public land management and in protecting public lands.