Which comes first, the NEPA or the ESA (process)?

My experience was generally that the consulting agencies wanted to have the last word. That is that they didn’t want to consult on anything unless it was the final decision by the Forest Service. The expectation was that the FS would just incorporate any needed changes that resulted from the consultation process. I wondered if the public needed be involved in these changes in the decision, but I didn’t think NEPA would apply because any changes required by ESA would further mitigate adverse impacts and/or be non-discretionary.

The court’s recent opinion in Bark v. Northrop discusses this part of the NEPA process. It involves a proposal to build the Timberline Ski Area Mountain Bike Trails and Skills Park on the Mt. Hood National Forest. As approved, the project is a chairlift-assisted mountain biking development with seventeen miles of bike trails and a small skills park within an area designated for managed recreation.

It turns out that after consulting with NMFS on the project’s effects on the Lower Columbia River steelhead the Forest Service issued a New Information Report (“NIR”) and concluded that NMFS’s discussion of the Project’s effects was consistent with the effects considered and disclosed in the project EA. (This actually happened twice, and the Forest Service made the point that the second set of terms and conditions were actually more protective so that impacts had been decreased.)

The court agreed that no supplemental NEPA analysis was necessary because “the mere fact that NMFS found likely adverse effects does not trigger further NEPA analysis unless NMFS’s finding implicates impacts that could significantly affect the environment in a manner not already considered by the Forest Service.”  The effects were minor, and the difference in effects was minor.  (The court reached a similar conclusion for new information about the western bumblebee, a FS-designated sensitive species.)

The Forest Service has little guidance on how to make determinations in accordance with NEPA regarding the significance of new information, never mind how that interfaces with ESA. “NIRs” are not a “thing” recognized in the agency NEPA directives. But the FS got it right this time.

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