Obliteration of old roads, dam removals would be OK’d under categorical exclusions
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — The U.S. Forest Service wants to speed restoration of national forest lands by streamlining the approval process for removing dams, and cleaning up debris and sediment and for reclaiming closed roads.
Under the proposal, now open for public comments, projects in those categories could be approved under a categorical exclusion, a type of review that isn’t nearly as extensive as an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement — all outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality recently issued guidance for the use of categorical exclusions. The CEQ concluded:
“Categorical exclusions have become the most frequently employed method of complying with NEPA. The extensive and expanding use of categorical exclusions underscores the need for clarifying guidance. Categorical exclusions are appropriate in many circumstances but should not be relied on if they thwart the purposes of NEPA, compromising the quality and transparency of agency decisionmaking or the opportunity for meaningful public participation. The guidance is designed to ensure that agencies appropriately and transparently establish and use categorical exclusions.”
Under the Obama administration, Forest Chief Chief Tom Tidwell has made restoration a big priority. The agency says the proposed rule change will enable more efficient implementation of projects to improve water flow and restore land and habitat.
Many recent forest logging projects related to beetle-kill have been approved under categorical exclusions. Often, the agency uses an up-front public involvement process to find consensus before formulating an official proposal.
Under a categorical exclusion, the Forest Service doesn’t have to prepare a set of alternatives or in-depth studies to show a finding of no significant impact.
“We are gaining efficiencies that allow us to move more rapidly through the environmental review process while reducing the cost to the taxpayers of unnecessary documentation,” said Harris Sherman, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment. “These projects are really a win-win for the environment and the public and will result in positive environmental outcomes.”
The proposed changes drew immediate criticism from the Blue Ribbon Coalition, the country’s largest off-road users advocacy group.
“Some of the agency’s recommendations make sense, but as usual, they go too far,” said Brian Hawthorne, public lands policy director for group. “If 40 years of NEPA has taught us anything it is that noble intentions don’t justify half-baked analysis. A bulldozer moving dirt is a bulldozer moving dirt. Environmental impacts don’t magically disappear because the source of sediment is called a restoration project.”
“This borderlines on willful mismanagement,” said BRC executive director Greg Mumm. “The Forest Service is sitting on 20 to 40 million acres of beetle-killed fire hazard and the fuse is lit. Their priorities are out of whack.” Mumm said.
The three proposed categorical exclusions were published last week in the Federal Register.
“These proposed changes will allow us to be more responsive and do a better job of working with local governments, Tribes and communities to move forward important on-the-ground projects,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
The proposed rule accelerates the pace of restoration and calls for a three- to five-page decision documentation process, which is less costly to write and review and can reduce the timeframe by as much as nine months compared to a typical environmental assessments which can be hundreds of pages long. This process retains the public notice, comment and appeals procedures that currently apply to categorical exclusions.
The comment period for the proposed change in Forest Service regulations is open for 60 days and closes August 13, 2012. Comments must be received in writing and can be submitted online, by mail or via facsimile.
Filed under: Environment, public lands, US Forest Service Tagged: | categorical exclusion, Environmental impact assessment, Environmental Impact Statement, National Environmental Policy Act, Obama administration, United States Forest Service