Previously, we had wondered a bit about the Emergency Action Authority and its implications. Here is one take from Marten Law’s analysis.
The IIJA establishes a new statutory categorical exclusion (“CE”) from NEPA for fuel breaks.[xvii] A statutory CE altogether exempts projects meeting the statutory CE’s requirements from NEPA’s environmental analysis requirements.[xviii] This new fuel break CE applies to fuel break projects up to 1000 feet wide and encompassing up to 3000 acres. It also applies to lands administered by either the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. As agencies continue to confront increased wildfire risks, this will provide a secure and timely path forward for fuel break projects that are needed to facilitate effective wildland firefighting.[xix]
The Act also establishes new “emergency action” authority to “mitigate the harm to life, property, or important natural or cultural resources on National Forest System land or adjacent land.”[xx] The Secretary of Agriculture can use this emergency authority to address a wide range of needs, including salvage of dead or dying trees, harvest of frost or wind-damaged trees, the commercial and noncommercial sanitation harvest of trees to control insects or disease (including trees already infested with insects or disease), the removal of hazardous trees in close proximity to roads and trails, the removal of hazardous fuels, replanting or reforesting of fire-impacted areas, restoration of water resources or infrastructure, and reconstruction of utility lines and underground cables, over up to 10,000 acres.
The emergency action authority has two major litigation implications. First, it limits the NEPA analysis required for any qualifying project. The Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement need only consider the alternatives of action or no action rather than a range of alternative actions. That change eliminates a potent argument that challengers use in NEPA cases.[xxi] Second, a court may only enjoin an emergency action project if the plaintiff shows it is “likely to succeed on the merits.” This in effect abrogates the “serious questions” or “sliding scale” standard that the Ninth Circuit applies when analyzing whether to issue an injunction.[xxii] That change would make injunctions significantly less likely for emergency action projects, particularly in western states within the Ninth Circuit. In concert, these two policy changes may streamline projects that previously would have been delayed by litigation.
According to these authors, the new emergency action authority would affect how many alternatives are needed (and possible ensuing litigation about specific ones that weren’t analyzed) (as we had previously discussed), but these authors bring up the 9th Circuit “serious questions” or “sliding scale” standard.