Interior Dept. Order limits most NEPA studies to one year, 150 pages

Portion of a Greenwire article posted today…. Anyone want to bet that the USFS will issue a similar order?

Citing a need to reduce “paperwork,” the Interior Department has imposed controversial new restrictions on the length of crucial environmental studies.

In a newly revealed Aug. 31 memo, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt directed that the department’s environmental impact statements “shall not be more than 150 pages or 300 pages for unusually complex projects.”

The memo states it “dovetails” with a presidential executive order focused on infrastructure projects, while adding that it is being issued in the “context of the department’s overall effort to streamline the NEPA process.”

Officials will need high-level approval to exceed the new page limit. The memo also imposes a “target” of completing the studies required under the National Environmental Protection Act within one year.

“The purpose of NEPA’s requirement is not the generation of paperwork, but the adoption of sound decisions based on an informed understanding of environmental consequences,” Bernhardt wrote, adding that studies “should focus on issues that truly matter rather than amassing unnecessary detail.”

15 Comments

  1. It would be interesting to see how they came up with those page limits. I am glad to see them succinctly state what the purpose of NEPA is – but I know from experience that it can sure be hard to convince other folks of the need to “focus on issues that truly matter”. I worked with an top-notch interdisciplinary team for many years and we honed things down to that – mostly by doing a lot of work before we started the NEPA process (“left-side” analysis) and by carefully designing our Proposed Actions based on what we learned. Our district and our forest were then combined with another district/forest who didn’t believe in that, our team scattered to the wind, and that process went away. It was sad to see.

    • M of T- I think you’ve hit on something really important.. when teams get really good at NEPA, sometimes it isn’t regarded as something important enough to focus on when other priorities come up (like forest combos). That’s why some folks suggested in the past that teams be formed that were experts on doing this and work on projects across that forest that require the equivalent of a Type A team. But culturally some Rangers did not “their” people being shared, even for the good of the Forest. There’s a lot of culture around the FS that I don’t think helps.

  2. There’s nothing new in this limit. It’s already spelled out in the CFR. Here’s an extract from FSH 1909.15 Chpt. 20
    “Page Limits
    The text of final environmental impact statements (paragraphs (d) through (g) of § 1502.10) shall normally be less than 150 pages and for proposals of unusual scope or complexity shall normally be less than 300 pages. (40 CFR 1502.7).”
    and another –
    “Agencies shall avoid useless bulk in statements and shall concentrate effort and attention on important issues. Verbose descriptions of the affected environment are themselves no measure of the adequacy of an environmental impact statement.”

    While I’m not a great fan of our present administration, this is one mandate that is right on target. For the past many years I’ve been begging our local forest to eliminate the endless repetitions and irrelevancies that clutter up its EISs and EAs. IMO, 60 pages is plenty to say all that needs to be said in the great bulk of these documents.

  3. As a Ranger, Forest Planner, and Environmental Coordinator I have always thought this should be the case. What are the key issues and the alternatives to resolve the issues. Of course, easier said than done but we can make an effort write the NEPA documents (EA) more succinctly and leave a lot of material in the case folder.

  4. As a NEPA coordinator for 10 years, I can tell you this will result in longer delays associated with the process and environmental analyses that are harder to read and understand. Ultimately there will be other consequences as well including employee dissatisfaction and more losses in court.

    It will take longer to pare down the NEPA document to meet the page limit than not. I’m sure what will happen is that the main NEPA document will be limited to XXXX number of pages, but there will be references to dozens of other analysis documents that would otherwise be part of the EA/EIS. I’m not sure how this helps anyone, but makes the analysis much harder to actually read, write, and fully understand by both the public and decision makers.

    The reason NEPA documents are long is because there are multiple requirements including a need to show all issues were addressed, the hard look requirement, Forest Plan compliance, etc. Documentation of meeting these requirements results in a greater number of pages. If the powers that be want shorter NEPA documents, they need to revisit the laws and regs to re-define the requirements of these documents rather than leave it up to the courts. In my ten years or so as a NEPA coordinator, the amount of issues and documentation requirements has grown dramatically and thus so have the number of pages in these analyses.

    I am all for succinct and relevant analysis that results in a limited number of pages while also meeting the purpose of NEPA to enlighten the decision making process and disclose potential effects of agency actions to the public. Ordering NEPA teams to do this will not be successful, especially where time is further limited and agency resources are strained. In the end, the effects of this strategy will be a decrease in employee moral and more adverse court decisions for agencies that choose this path.

    • I am with Mike here, perhaps because of my NEPA experience in DC. When I was the Assistant Director for NEPA, we used to attend interagency NEPA meetings (in both colors of administrations) where these issues were discussed. I can pretty well summarize years of meetings..
      Agencies: We need to improve NEPA
      CEQ: It works fine
      Agencies: We have to put in everything but the kitchen sink.
      CEQ: That’s not in the regulations- you just don’t do it right.
      Agencies: It’s the case law not the regulations.
      >>>>end of discussion until the next meeting>>>>>>
      For the following, I am talking about LTBL EIS’s (likely to be litigated)

      I am also with Mike in that we can imagine links such that the base document is pretty lean but the background is accessed through imbedded links. I’m not sure that “saves pages” in any meaningful way.

      That’s also a hassle for the people who have to review it (and keep up the links). Let’s face it, EIS’s are not really for the public to read, they are for specialists with other state and federal agencies to review and give comments which add more pages, and LL (likely litigants), and members of the public with specific concerns (with the trucks go on my road?). I don’t see how this could change by agency fiat. You could require agencies to additionally write a “People’s EIS” but then that’s more work and if people don’t agree what’s IN the EIS, they won’t agree how to SUMMARIZE what’s in the EIS.

      • I love your description of the meetings with CEQ – and I have seen many such versions of something similar in the FS about needing to do more “streamlined” NEPA, and the FS even has some sort of “NEPA Summit” planned to train NEPA evangelists who will go out and spread the word about being more efficient with NEPA. But that is doomed because of the “employee dissatisfaction” type of thing – in my experience, many employees do not understand what their role is in the NEPA process, and when their line officer does not make their expectations clear and does not follow along on NEPA work (and pre-NEPA work), things can get off the tracks fast. The team I was on became very efficient because we understood our role, we made our line officer help us out when we were stuck (and he gladly did so), and we stayed focused on the key issues. Unfortunately, I don’t see many lean documents, and I see a lot of problems in the documents that I review – they are greatly lacking in logic and in providing an understanding of cause and effect. And I can’t help here relating a tale about a court-ordered FEIS that I became “managing editor” on – it was in atrocious shape when I inherited it. I read it through, determined what the key decision points were, and rewrote it to focus on those points – I dropped 2/3 of the pages. The Ranger was upset that so much had been dropped (he had written some of the material that had been dropped), but he admitted that it was much more focused and easier to read.

  5. For most timber projects, like thinning and salvage, the reasoning and citations have been around for quite some time. Some portions should even be ‘canned’, they are so similar, applying to many multiple projects. Actually, some of those projects should be exempt from environmental review, like thinning, salvage and roadside hazard tree projects. Of course, those projects would have to meet established guidelines to be granted such status.

    • The U.S. Forest Service currently have a variety of “Categorical Exclusions” covering everything from thinning, logging, post-fire salvage and even prescribed burning. Just the Farm Bill CE’s cover 46.7 million acres of National Forest. All those other CE varieties, put in place by Mark Rey under Bush II, likely would cover tens of millions of acres more. Honestly, I think that pretty much the entire U.S. Forest Service timber base could be logged using one variety of CE, or another.

      • For thinning and salvage, the current acreage restrictions don’t work. Usually, conditions for salvage and thinning cover very large acreages. It is clear that forest managers don’t think that the current CE’s will hold up in court. We need something that exempts the entire Sierra Nevada from litigation, as long as important guidelines are followed.

      • Matthew, I think the story is more complicated than that..
        Rey/Bush CE’s I think the big two there were Limited Timber Harvest and the Fuel Reduction ones (which I think were joint with Interior). I looked here and it looks like the Fuels CE is gone.
        https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3826583.pdf
        Anyone have more recent info?
        Limited Timber Harvest was an update of one which predated the Bush Administration but was struck down by the courts. You could argue that redoing it was as much the result of the court case as whichever administration had to redo it.
        Finally, many CE’s are done by statute to help with things Congress determined to be important, such as the Farm Bill CE’s the Energy Policy CE’s and so on. What I’ve observed is that Congress has an idea (NEPA, ESA) and writes a bill. Then agencies issue regulations. Then courts interpret the statute and regulations. For older laws, such as NEPA and ESA sometimes it’s difficult to see the law behind the bureaucratic and legal layers. Then someone trying to do something gets frustrated and works with Congress to provide statutory CE’s.. that’s just policy co-evolution.

  6. The memo states it “dovetails” with a presidential executive order focused on infrastructure projects. That one was issued last month: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/08/15/presidential-executive-order-establishing-discipline-and-accountability

    I agree that this really doesn’t change the requirements for USDI. Mac cited the existing Forest Service direction; the CEQ regulations also cover this ground for all agencies well (since 1979): §1500.4 (“Reducing paperwork”) and §1500.5 (“Reducing delay”). And deadlines don’t change reality, except for managers ratcheting up the pressure, which leads to mistakes and legal risk.

    I think a number of the comments here have shown some of the reason why nothing changes. A couple of additional things I’ve thought over the years. Specialists preparing NEPA documents that don’t really understand WHY they’re doing NEPA; instead they just try to follow agency instructions for HOW. These instructions are generic and result in including things not needed for particular projects. You also have specialists who want to make sure they have as many pages as everyone else. There has been lots of NEPA training in the FS (I provided some), and I’m sure it helps. But then, when you do get someone who actually understands what they are doing, they move on to a job they really want (there’s no glory in the agency for being great at NEPA).

    • Amen to that, Jon!! I wonder what it would take to get that to change?
      “But then, when you do get someone who actually understands what they are doing, they move on to a job they really want (there’s no glory in the agency for being great at NEPA).”

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