Sunday, July 28, 2019

Dismantling NEPA Part 1: A National Push for NEPA Rule Changes

Community members and the Forest Service conducting a public field tour during a NEPA process in the Applegate. If proposed NEPA rule changes are approved, public involvement could be a thing of the past.

This summer the Forest Service proposed dramatic nationwide changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. These revisions to NEPA would allow widespread logging, mining and road building throughout Forest Service lands.

To achieve these goals the agency has proposed sweeping changes that would drastically limit public input and eliminate environmental review for the vast majority of Forest Service projects. These changes would essentially shut the public out of public land management planning.


The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is the foundation of public involvement on our public lands. It is also intended to facilitate a thorough environmental analysis for federal land management projects. The public process required under NEPA has consistently made public land management projects significantly better for natural resources, wildlife, watersheds and local communities. NEPA brings a sense of democracy and accountability into the public land management planning process.

NEPA's bedrock principals include government transparency, accountability, public involvement, and science-based decision making. It is used to analyze the impacts of specific land management projects, disclose those impacts to the public and allows the agency to make more informed decisions. The public's ability to provide comment and demand a seat at the table is dependent on the integrity of the NEPA process.
 
The Elimination of Public Scoping
  
The Forest Service's proposed NEPA revisions would eliminate the requirement to conduct public scoping on most federal land management projects. Public scoping is used to inform the public of land management proposals and solicit an initial public comment period. This comment period is used to create proposed action alternatives, document public concerns and identify exceptional values at risk. 

Scoping promotes transparency, accountability and scientific credibility. It also allows land managers to meaningfully address public concerns in an EA or EIS. The proposed NEPA revisions would largely eliminate Scoping requirements for most land management projects conducted on Forest Service lands.

Categorical Exclusions

The agency has also proposed the adoption of seven new Categorical Exclusions (CE) and the expansion of two existing Categorical Exclusions. CE's are used to expedite the planning process by virtually eliminating public involvement and environmental review. 

CE's supposedly identify projects "that do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment and therefore, do not require preparation of an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)." Historically, CE's were meant to facilitate the maintenance of existing infrastructure or to authorize very small projects, with minimal environmental effects.

Large Forest Service logging projects, including up to 4,200 acres of commercial logging, could be approved without public input or environmental review under the newly proposed Categorical Exclusions.

The proposed NEPA revisions would allow land managers to  approve large, complex, and potentially damaging projects as CE's. It would also allow land managers to approve numerous associated projects under CE's, creating significant cumulative effects, without analyzing, documenting or disclosing those effects publicly in an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statment.


Although the Forest Service claims they need these changes "to increase the pace and scale of work accomplished on the ground," and address supposed wildfire concerns, these Categorical Exclusions would include many provisions that have no restorative benefits and do not directly address fire, fuels or community fire safety. These provisions include, but are not limited to:

  • The ability to authorize broadly defined "restoration and/or resilience activities" without public input or environmental review. This would include up to 4,200 acres (or 6.6 square miles) of commercial logging and 7,300 acres of manual thinning in a single CE. 
  • The ability to authorize the construction of up to 5 miles of new road and the reconstruction of 10 miles of existing roads in a single CE, with no public input or environmental review. 
  • The ability to convert currently illegal and environmentally damaging off-road vehicle routes into official Forest Service trails or roads without public input or environmental review. 
  • The ability to authorize damaging land management projects in Inventoried Roadless Areas with no public input or environmental review. 

The proposed rule changes would allow the agency to implement large and potentially damaging projects without site specific environmental review or meaningful public input. In fact, under the proposed rule changes, the public would only be notified of a project after it has been approved.

Determinations of NEPA Adequacy

The proposed NEPA revisions would also encourage the use of another internal review process, known as a Determination of NEPA Adequacy (DNA). A DNA allows Forest Service land managers to use their "experience" with past projects to authorize a project of similar nature without public comment or environmental review, again cutting the public out of the process and avoiding site specific environmental review. 

Condition-Based Management

Proposed NEPA revisions also propose the use of "condition-based management," which allows land managers to implement projects across broad landscapes based on a particular environmental condition, rather than on site specific needs. Environmental conditions such as high fuel loads, dense forests, bark beetle outbreaks, post-fire landscapes, and a broad range of other perceived and highly subjective conditions, would trigger specific management actions including logging, road building, and fuel reduction. 

Land managers would approve a range of generalized activities to address environmental conditions existing on the landscape. These activities would then be implemented across the landscape without public input or environmental review.

Conclusion

If these rule changes are approved it is estimated that roughly 75% of the projects currently requiring a more thorough EA or EIS would be implemented utilizing the newly proposed CE's. It is also estimated that an astounding 98% of federal land management projects would not include any level of public input before they are approved. 

    The proposed NEPA revisions will eliminate or limit important  requirements intended to protect public resources and encourage public involvement. If these provisions are approved, NEPA will be functionally dead, community-based collaboration will be a thing of the past, and science-based management will disappear from our federal lands.

    According to the official Forest Service website, the agency motto is, "Caring for the land and serving the people." The proposed NEPA rule changes will neither care for the land or serve the people. Instead they will serve the industries and ignore the people.
    Although local communities will be affected by federal land management planning decisions and often actively participate in the planning process, proposed NEPA rule changes will almost completely exclude the public from the process.


    Please Comment

    Please use the public process, while it is still available, and send in a comment opposing these unreasonable rule changes. The NEPA process should be used to front-load projects with public input, collaboration, and science. When implemented effectively NEPA can be used to find common ground, create better projects and implement non-controversial land management activities. The proposed NEPA revisions will do the opposite.

    Comments can be submitted until August 12, 2019. Please stand up for the NEPA process. The future of our National Forest lands depend on your contribution. Speak up for the science-based management, environmental review and rigorous public involvement process that NEPA currently requires. These are our public lands, please use your voice to protect them.

    To comment please follow this link and click on "Comment Now"

    https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=FS-2019-0010

    Public meetings to discuss land management proposals and solicit feedback from community members are part of the NEPA public process and would be eliminated under new proposals by the BLM and Forest Service.


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