The July edition of the Journal of Forestry will have a paper of interest here: “US Forest Service Implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act: Fast, Variable, Rarely Litigated, and Declining,” be Forrest Fleischman et al. I don’t have permission yet to post the full text (it’s open to SAF members), but here’s the abstract and Management and Policy Implications — grist for the discussion mill. The last sentence in the Implications is perhaps the root of many of the agencies challenges: “This may suggest that USFS no longer has the resources to conduct routine land-management activities.” But of course there’s much more to the story.
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.
Management and Policy Implications
There has been much public debate on how the US Forest Service (USFS) can better fulfill its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) obligations, including currently proposed rule-making by the agency and the Council on Environmental Quality; however, this debate has not been informed by systematic data on the agency’s NEPA processes. In contrast to recently publicized concerns about indeterminable delays caused by NEPA, our research finds that the vast majority of NEPA projects are processed quickly using existing legal authorities (i.e., Categorical Exclusions and Environmental Assessments) and that the USFS processes environmental impact statements faster than any other agency with a significant NEPA workload. However, wide variations between management units within the agency suggest that lessons could be learned through more careful study of how individual units manage their NEPA workload more or less successfully, as well as through exchanges among managers to communicate best practices. Of much greater concern is the dramatic decline in the number of NEPA analyses conducted by the agency, a decline that has continued through three presidential administrations and is not clearly related to any change in NEPA policy. This may suggest that USFS no longer has the resources to conduct routine land-management activities.