This paper was published in the Journal of Forestry, and I received an e-reprint from the first author, Forrest Fleischman. What is very (very!) cool is that the raw data is also available to the public in the University of Minnesota repository here.
The authors downloaded the entire Multi-year Trend Report, as they had access. Which is somewhat frustrating for me, as I was told I couldn’t access the database when I wanted to look at CEs, as I wasn’t an internal person. I could have FOIA’d it like Wild Earth Guardians, but really? So let’s talk about PALS for a minute. When E-Gov came around, the NEPA shop in DC (of which I was the lead at the time, but the immensely wonderful and capable Reta Laford did most of the work) was challenged to make NEPA more efficient, and getting a database to be able to ask questions like “how long does it take?” seemed like low-hanging fruit. Our intention at the time was to get it up and running, and then open it to the public. This seems to be one of those things that is good for the public, but never attracts the attention of any kind of Administration, so it never happens. We can put it on the The Smokey Wire Transition Team list of Things That People Who Otherwise Disagree, Agree Should Be Implemented.
Anyway, I have prowled around looking for objection letters, and I’m not sure that everyone is entering everything. So I’d greatly appreciate some feedback from current employees on how accurate they think the data are for NEPA, objections, and litigation. Here’s what Fleischman said about the data issue:”We found a lot of missing data, but think we have a pretty good sense of what it is from cross checking with other sources (e.g. individual national forest websites, library archives, etc.).” IMHO, shouldn’t have to do that.
And here is a link to their award from the National Science Foundation.
Here’s the abstract:
This paper draws on systematic data from the US Forest Service’s (USFS) Planning, Appeals and Litigation System to analyze how the agency conducts environmental impact assessments under
the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). We find that only 1.9 percent of the 33,976 USFS decisions between 2005 and 2018 were processed as Environmental Impact Statements, the most
rigorous and time-consuming level of analysis, whereas 82.3 percent of projects fit categorical exclusions. The median time to complete a NEPA analysis was 131 days. The number of new projects
has declined dramatically in this period, with the USFS now initiating less than half as many projects per year as it did prior to 2010. We find substantial variation between USFS units in the number of projects completed and time to completion, with some units completing projects in half the time of others. These findings point toward avenues for improving the agency’s NEPA processes.
For me, most of it, given all the previous “NEPA for the 21st Century” research, not too much was surprising, except this observation the decline in projects over time:
Several potential causes of the declines in Figure 7 can be easily eliminated. The trends are fairly consistent over the last 14 years, suggesting that no one
administration or Congress is responsible for lower levels of activity, although the sharp drop in CEs from 2007 to 2008 may be due to court cases lost by the Bush Administration that year that invalidated some CEs. (Sharon: were those the HFI CE’s?) Similarly, the decline appears similar across regions and activities. There are no major changes in NEPA regulations during this time that can account for this large shift in the number of projects. Yet whereas the number of projects signed by district rangers has declined by approximately 40 percent since the early years of our study, the decline in projects signed by higher level officials (e.g., forest supervisors, regional foresters) is only about 15 percent. This could indicate that the decline in number of projects is partly a result of consolidation of NEPA analyses into a smaller number of larger, landscape-scale programmatic EISs (Council on Environmental Quality 2014), although if this were the case, we would also expect an increase in the number of EAs and CEs that implement the programmatic EIS, but instead we observe a decrease. (Sharon: but maybe they are not programmatic but just larger landscapes for analysis)
On the other hand, it could also indicate that higher-level officials have more access to resources and/or pursue projects that are less likely to be cancelled in times of fiscal stress.
Perhaps people currently working could comment on their observations on their own districts/forests as to reduction in NEPA docs? Is it perhaps associated with lower budgets and/or fewer people?
Let the discussion (and different ways of analyzing the data) begin! If you want to ask a question of the data, and don’t have the skills, maybe we can help each other figure it out.