Fleischman et al NEPA Paper: Discussion

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.

7 thoughts on “Fleischman et al NEPA Paper: Discussion”

  1. There’s maybe another possibility, that I have no evidence for whatsoever (and apparently the database isn’t detailed enough to look for this), but could an agency short on funding have learned that some of the smaller decisions they used to do NEPA for that nobody really cares about could be done with no documentation at all?

    While I’m at it, I think this conclusion is worth highlighting:
    “Our data do not provide support for the current proposal to expand the number of projects eligible for CEs (US Forest Service 2019) and do not support a significant justification for CEQ’s proposed rule-making (Council on Environmental Quality 2020) and associated executive action surrounding NEPA. In contrast to the justification for the proposed rule changes, the
    vast majority of USFS projects are completed quickly, use existing authority to decrease paperwork, and are not litigated.”

    • Yes, but Jon, I don’t think you can conclude that from the data. It’s one of those averaging phenomena, as we have seen before in these analyses (like the GAO report on litigation). If you summarize over the country it’s not a problem, so local or regional observations that it is a problem are discounted.

      And the CEQ rule-making is not about the FS, the FS is small potatoes in all USG NEPA (think DOT, DOD). We wouldn’t expect one agency’s activities to make a case, or not for a CEQ rule-making.

  2. Hi Sharon,
    First of all, thanks for the very thorough writeup of our work. When we began this project, we had no idea that PALS existed. In our original proposal, we just said that we’d scrape every available public data source and assemble our own database of NEPA projects. The EPA has a database of EISs, individual national forests have SOPA pages, and we found out that a few academic libraries (notably Northwestern U) have really good archives of NEPA documents, many of which were scanned by Hathi Trust, and so are available through the library system. One of the first things we did when we found out about PALS was to compare what was in PALS to this other data (which we’d already collected). We found *alot* of inconsistencies, which was not terribly surprising, and we’re actually hoping to write a separate paper about these inconsistencies and their implications for those who use administrative records to study government. It would be great if the entire PALS system had a public viewing access – of course, it would be fantastic for a few researchers like me. The next step in our research project is to analyze the full text of all the EISs, using a variety of machine learning techniques… this is already under way so knowing how fast academic publication takes, we might have results out in a year or 3. However if PALS was publicly accessible and searchable, we would have been able to do alot more – for example, comparing draft and final EISs, comparing EISs and EAs, and maybe even delving into that gigantic corpus of tens of thousands of CEs. We won’t be looking at all these kinds of documents because collecting them all would just be a huge amount of work. But they are all sitting on some internal USFS server somewhere. I think making PALS publicly accessible would also ease public engagement processes more generally – individual forests could simply provide links to documents posted in PALS. In any case, for now, we have made the Multi-Year Trend Report data available from 2005-2018. We’ll probably do some more of our own analysis on it (and are open to suggestions of what to look at), but we hope others will as well. There is alot to dig into here.
    I appreciate Jon highlighting one of our most important findings. I think the USFS gets alot of flak from all sides over their NEPA process, and our work shows alot of opportunity for improvement. But it also shows a process that is basically functioning as it should: most projects are processed very quickly, with little controversy. A tiny proportion of projects take a huge amount of time (or end up in litigation).
    I’m happy to email copies of the full paper to folks who aren’t able to access it – you can find my contact here: https://www.forestry.umn.edu/forrest-d-fleischman

  3. Thanks for saying this very clearly Forrest Fleischman. Maybe someday people in positions of power, and powerful industries, will listen to these basic facts.

    “a process that is basically functioning as it should: most projects are processed very quickly, with little controversy. A tiny proportion of projects take a huge amount of time (or end up in litigation).”

    • Matthew, to be fair, the to judge ” whether something is functioning as it should” you would have to have an open discussion about “how it should function”, which I thinks looks different to all of us. That “tininess” may look very different to someone doing fuels treatments with commercial logging in say, Montana, than to someone processing scout camp permit renewals on the Angeles.

      But I think we need to lift our sights from the CE’s a bit here. The Forest Service did many workshops on how to improve NEPA. We may disagree about what actually needs to be done (internal improvements vs. CEs, for example) but everyone thought it might function better than it currently does, including recreation people. In terms of CE’s, theirs were in the proposed reg. So can a research study show them that their observations are not “facts”?

  4. And here’s the thing about that conclusion, and back to Sharon’s point: while the USFS may not carry the lion’s share of the NEPA work across the federal agencies, it does carry out some of the most high profile projects that affect millions of Americans, and a natural heritage asset owned in common by those Americans. That’s what makes the national forests and Forest Service special 🙂

    So, if NEPA is working for the Forest Service, that’s a decent sign at least that NEPA is working for other federal agencies as well.

    • Susan, I wish you could have been in the interagency NEPA meetings that I used to attend as the FS NEPA person! I think LNG terminals, FERC relicensing of hydropower dams, federal highway improvements also influence millions of Americans with the same joint natural heritage.

      Not to diss the BLM, fellow multiple use agency that does windfarms, transmission lines, oil and gas development and so on.


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading