The U.S. Forest Service’s mission is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. This mission is at risk with over 80 million acres of National Forest System lands vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire, according to agency’s estimates.
Already, more than half of the Forest Service’s budget is spent suppressing forest fires. And with a maintenance backlog of over $5 billion, the agency struggles to keep public lands and recreational amenities available and accessible to all Americans. Like many public agencies facing budget shortfalls, the Forest Service recognizes it must be able to do more with less. One way to help the agency better achieve its mission is to address the bureaucracy and mountain of paperwork the agency must do to complete basic tasks.
That’s why the Forest Service has proposed modernizing its regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law requiring agencies to assess and disclose the potential environmental effects of proposed actions prior to making decisions. The current Forest Service regulations are based on guidelines established in 1992, well before the upsurge of recreation on public lands, and before science and the recent trend of catastrophic wildfires underscored the need for accelerated management activities.
Over the last quarter century, the costs and time needed to complete NEPA work has ballooned, impacting all users of public lands. Today, it can typically over three years to complete the environmental paperwork for something as simple as a routine forest thinning project, or to get a special use permit to organize a commercial rafting trip. At such a pace, it’s difficult for the Forest Service to catch up on all the needed work — to say nothing of being responsive to the thousands of small businesses, outfitters and families who depend on access to America’s public lands.
Consider this: according to the Forest Service, a majority of environmental decisions made by the agency relate to special use permits, such as those authorizing outfitters to lead guided hikes on popular hiking trails. The agency estimates more than 5,000 new special use permits and renewals are awaiting environmental analyses and decisions, affecting more than 7,000 businesses and 120,000 jobs. The proposed NEPA changes would streamline approvals for outdoor recreation providers.
The agency's updates would create a new series of "categorical exclusions" (CEs) a classification under NEPA excluding certain routine activities from more time-consuming analysis. Most of the public attention on these proposed regulations has focused on a “restoration” CE for forest projects that would enhance ecosystem health and watershed conditions, particularly where those forest management activities would not have a significant effect on the human environment. Yet the remainder of the proposed CE’s are aimed at improving the agency's ability to manage roads, trails, recreation facilities and special use permit activities.
The proposed categorical exclusions would also help the Forest Service more easily implement needed infrastructure projects and improvements to recreation sites such as trailheads, campgrounds, fishing sites and ski areas. Much of this regulatory streamlining allows the agency to quickly approve activities where they are already consistent with existing Forest Service plans, rules and laws.
The Forest Service’s proposed NEPA regulations are the product of extensive analyses and the result of input from agency personnel, national forest stakeholders and the general public. It gives the Forest Service new tools and flexibility to do more work, and ensures the agency conducts the right amount of environmental analysis while reducing redundancy in paperwork. The regulations can be viewed at Regulations.gov and deserve support from anyone who believes in the agency’s mission.