Agency to accelerate NEPA reviews for soil, water restoration
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.