New USFS Categorical Exclusions

From E&E News….

Agency to accelerate NEPA reviews for soil, water restoration

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Published: Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Forest Service will soon finalize a rule designed to accelerate environmental reviews for projects that restore water and soil, including the removal of culverts or seeding of native plants.

The rule aims to restore lands and waterways that have been harmed by roads, trails, levees and culverts, as well as natural events like floods and hurricanes.

The agency plans to establish three new categorical exclusions for hydrologic, aquatic and landscape restoration activities. Categorical exclusions take about one-third less time than environmental assessments (EAs) under the National Environmental Policy Act, the agency said.

The new exclusions will apply to projects that restore uplands, wetlands, floodplains and stream banks to their natural condition. Activities could include dike, culvert and debris removal; stream bank stabilization; and road and trail decommissioning.

“This rule will help us improve the resiliency, health and diversity of our forests and grasslands,” Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a statement. “We will now be able to move forward with our partners to focus more energy on action, and less on paperwork, to restore more acres in less time.”

The agency said it prepares between 2,000 and 2,500 categorical exclusions and 400 environmental assessments each year. EAs often run hundreds of pages long.

The new exclusions aim to restore water flows to natural channels and floodplains and will not exclude public input, the agency said.

The new rule, which has yet to be officially released, will not be used to decide whether the public has access to roads and trails. Those decisions typically undergo a separate NEPA review.

“The majority of issues associated with road and trail decommissioning arise from the initial decision whether to close a road or trail to public use rather than from implementing individual restoration projects,” the agency said in a draft of the rule last summer (E&ENews PM, June 12, 2012).

Still, the proposal drew intense criticism from motorized recreation enthusiasts.

“Some of the agency’s recommendations make sense, but as usual, they go too far,” said a statement last summer by Brian Hawthorne, public lands policy director for the Idaho-based BlueRibbon Coalition, a national group that promotes motorized access on public lands.

The draft rule would allow the decommissioning of non-system roads to more natural conditions, removal of unauthorized roadbeds or the placement of boulders or other impediments in front of non-system trails.

But Hawthorne said many travel planning projects that close roads are amended within one or two years after completion. “It is quite likely that routes proposed for decommissioning will be necessary additions in future recreation and travel planning,” he said at the time.

The group was not immediately available this afternoon for comment.

The Forest Service said it consulted with its own scientists, reviewed peer-reviewed research and compared several other federal agencies’ use of CEs for similar restoration activities.

The new CEs “would not individually or cumulatively have significant effects on the human environment,” it said.

The proposal garnered 367 comments.

4 thoughts on “New USFS Categorical Exclusions”

  1. I think it’s interesting that establishing a CE Category for road decomissioning is called in this story “accelerating environmental review” (italics mine).

    But when Congress tries to develop a CE Category

    “The Forest Service would be allowed to forgo environmental reviews for forest thinning projects smaller than 10,000 acres under a provision in the House farm bill.”
    as in this story here

    Just sayin’ the use of CE’s is conceptually the same whatever you use them for.

  2. The CE is a good tool. It can be especially helpful to expedite timber harvest after a catastrophic event like wildfires and windstorms.
    The Forest Service and BLM are often afraid to use it. They have said that if they use it, the “enviros” may sue, and that the “head office”, may then revoke the right to use it.
    This often results in years of delays before any action is taken, no matter how minimal, while a NEPA document is developed. Which then results in a decrease in value of the timber to be harvested and the economic viability of the project.
    I don’t imagine the environmental community would sue to stop road decommissioning, and local communities are usually too busy and fragmented to protest.
    I agree that the CE is conceptually the same however you use it.

    • Stump, you gotta use ’em or what was the point of getting them? But you should not abuse them- I have seen that. If you have any question about use or abuse, I would suggest following the advice of the RO NEPA shop.

      I have heard that people don’t use them because they’ve heard “DOJ won’t defend you.” I don’t know if that’s true or the FS equivalent of an urban legend.

      When I was working, I had a timber industry guy call me up and say a ranger shouldn’t use a CE because they wanted the relative certainty of an EA. So externals can want more work done.

      There were also people who liked their EA assembly line and did them well, and didn’t see that they would save that much because they would have to change from something that was streamlined and working well.

      There might be some literature on “why people don’t use CEs” perhaps done by NEPA for the 21st Century?

  3. I think people do use CEs. The GAO studies and NEPA PALS database clearly show that decisions based on CEs are much more numerous than decisions based on EAs or EISs. I do agree that there are some pockets of the agency where CEs may be underutilized, but this seems a major exception to the rule.


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