Let’s Co-Design and Co-Produce a NEPA Study! II. What Are Your Questions?

Forrest asked the question yesterday , “how can a research project be designed to provide input that might actually be used in a productive way by the agency.  Perhaps co-production is part of the answer to that, but there might be other factors (e.g. perhaps we should focus on some variables that are more amenable to change?).”

My thoughts on that are we have more than 100 years of land grant institution experience about how to link users and producers of knowledge.  Researchers need to be in dialogue with practitioners and understand their needs. I’ve found this to vary by type of school (land grant or liberal arts), the specific school and sub-school culture, discipline and individual professor’s interests (and their kind of appointment, research, teaching and extension percentages).  Plus of course what there is research funding for.  Which is a whole other study that could be done: Factors that Influence Faculty/Practitioner Interaction. To get at that, we could take the forest-related faculty at a variety of schools and survey to what extent they interact with people in practice.. and through what virtual or physical places, meetings, whatever.  I remember a prof at Oregon State (was it Tom Adams?) saying he learned as much from teaching at Silviculture Institute as he taught (or maybe it was CEFES).   But I digress.

Anyway, in terms of questions, it’s  OK to be simply curious but also OK to be focused on practical outcomes.  So in the broadest context of the “NEPA” ecosystem (NEPA-system) we have these actors:

Directly Involved:

Forest Service- line officers, NEPA folks, specialists

Parties Who Want to Do/Benefit From Projects-  communities, industries (recreation, powerlines, etc.), wildlife interests and so on

Parties Who Do Not Want or Want to Change Projects – ENGOs  and/or local groups of various kinds, with or without legal representation









What questions do you have about anything within the NEPA-system?

Here’s one example, if you’re the kind of person who needs ticklers… like me.  Chief Moore mentioned in his talk at SAF that he thought BLM in some cases, was more efficient with NEPA (can’t remember his exact words off the top of my head).  That would bring up the question for me.. what would we find out if we surveyed a bunch of bi-agency folks (with experience in NEPA in both agencies) on the topic of “what works best for one that the other agency might try?”.

If you can’t think of any right now, please feel free to come back to this thread as we discuss more and put your questions (and proposed ways of getting at them, if you’d like) in the comments.

37 thoughts on “Let’s Co-Design and Co-Produce a NEPA Study! II. What Are Your Questions?”

  1. Some ‘scientists’ design studies to compare the “no action” alternative with intensive 80s-style logging, to ‘prove’ that the Forest Service is currently doing everything wrong. That way, the study can pronounce that strict preservation is better than active management.

    (Of course, such a study has no value, science-wise. It does have value in generating donations for certain NGOs.)

  2. Of course I’d rather question the question: “used in a productive way by the agency?” What does the agency consider “productive,” so that it would be motivated to use the research?

    But here’s a random question that came to mind that gets at the “spirit” of NEPA – what kinds of changes is the agency willing to make in response to public comments, and what kinds of comments where those? And how often does this happen?

    • Well, I think this discussion gets at the heart of many NEPA debates.. it is a procedural statute. Given the same info, and the same public comment, a variety of decisions are possible.

      As to public comments, I don’t think I’ve been involved with or seen a project in which some changes weren’t made due to public comments. I should also point out that the higher the stakes the more some comments (from politically powerful folks of various persuations) count more than others.

      • There is some good research on the constraints to public influence of agency decisions (Hoover and Stern 2014a) and IDTL perceptions of where and how public influence is useful and desired (Hoover and Stern 2014b). Take home: NEPA is procedural and dictates that agency’s will provide opportunities for public comment, but nowhere does it require that that input influence decisions. However, the second article above makes the important point that agency staff do see value in it and believe that it should influence decisions. Both articles can be found in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 57(2).

        Many would agree that the current public comment process as a two-dimensional framework is very flawed and that deliberative processes like collaboration provide much more useful and nuanced input that is more useful to decision-makers (aka Travis Paveglio’s “checkers to chess” analogy).

  3. This is based purely on my own observations of projects I’ve been interested in, but it seems to me the BLM likes to do everything with EAs and does very few EIS’s. The BLM is currently in the process of re-doing most of the their travel management plans for the state of Utah with only EAs, yet the large travel plans the Forest Service has done in Colorado over the last 10 years have all been an EIS. I don’t know if that pattern holds true for things other than travel management, but if the BLM somehow manages to do just about every NEPA project as an EA, that would certainly make them faster.

      • I have observed things that led me to think that NEPA’s requirements were taken more seriously where the public was more “interested” in the decisions. That would generally mean that FS gets more scrutiny than BLM and some national forests get more scrutiny than others. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some correspondence (for similar projects) between the proportion of EISs and the proportion of that type of project being challenged.

        • That may be true in general, but not in some of the specific cases I’m thinking of. The BLM is currently re-doing its travel management plan for a large area west of Moab called Labyrinth Rims / Gemini Bridges that’s probably a similar size to many National Forests in Utah. That area contains probably the highest concentration of world-famous off-road trails in America, including most of the trails run as part of Easter Jeep Safari.

          The BLM’s route inventory has roughly 2,000 miles of roads (similar to that of the Pike San Isabel National Forest travel planning process), and tons of people on both sides are heavily invested in the outcome. The BLM received over 9,000 comments for scoping period, and the final decision is almost certain to be litigated, likely by both sides. This will probably be the most controversial travel management project undertaken by any land management agency this decade. Yet the project is being done as an EA, not an EIS. Personally I would think if the BLM was ever going to do an EIS, this would be the time, but apparently not.

  4. I think a big difference is appeal/objection regulations. Certainly there are some NEPA differences between BLM and FS, but the big one to me is appeals/objections.

  5. How big of a geek am I if this topic excites me? (rhetorical question, please do not answer).

    I’m going to go against my personal instincts and toot my own horn. A paper that I published last year with Dennis Becker does provide a first stab at answering some of these questions regarding how to incorporate more explanatory variables into analyses of NEPA timelines. In it, we did the painstaking work of connecting PALS and FACTS (accomplishments database) to look at the relationship of size (acres treated) and complexity (variety of objectives/activities) with planning timelines, to understand outputs per unit of input after controlling for level of analysis (CE, EA, EIS). By no means a perfect study (I would do it differently next time) but it’s a place to start.

    Link to paper: https://academic.oup.com/forestscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/forsci/fxaa040/6080199?guestAccessKey=4da97b10-0ff5-483c-af0d-9c375274cc54

    Other variables that could be included: number of T&E species (to deal with variations in the complexity of the planning environment), staff capacity (I dream of getting a hold of personnel data by series from OPM), and one of the bigger questions (if mode of governance, i.e. collaboration is included as a variable) is how to account for all of the pre-scoping “NFMA” engagement that is not captured in the PALS “days to decision” measure.

    Many others, I’m sure, but these are some of my thoughts on what I would do differently if I could do my study over.

  6. in the vein of jon’s questions and the Fleischmann / morgan et al back and forth:
    One bundle of questions related to the value added by project level NEPA in the forest “plan to project” model of decision making and the appropriateness of that, one bundle related to what effectiveness means in NEPA more generally

    1. On the value added by project level NEPA when going plan to project: Where is value added in NEPA processes and at what point do we find NEPA processes being proxies in larger policy conflicts on the uses of natural resources? When and where is that conflict legitimately hashed out at the level of a NEPA review? Example would be when, after forest planning, vegetation/timber/fire NEPA is hashing through the same objectives every time. Should that be part of the project level NEPA or should that be counted as resolved by the Forest Plan? How is tiering expected to work effectively if every level of review is an occasion for new conflict flashpoints on the same issues?

    2. On the value added by NEPA generally and how that value might be evaluations. Public involvement in projects and resulting changes is often touted as a good, but that is often a proxy for a group getting a decision moved in the direction of a preexisting desired outcome or policy position. Think of statements “this project x is well done because the agency listened to the people on y” but that’s often put forth as an example because the process is provided a means to advance a pre-existing agenda such as no timber coming out of national forests. Are their ways of interpreting NEPA well done that don’t smuggle in preferred outcomes as a criteria of it being well done? I think there probably are, but don’t know. Example thinking on this: https://par.nsf.gov/servlets/purl/10113354 but it’s by it’s own admission a very preliminary step. There’s also Stern’s research: https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/46189
    I think there could be ways to build out on these in the direction of specific studies. I won’t pretend to have thought this through to the properly academic level of rigor.

    For question 1, more directly, has study been made of comparative effectiveness of forest plans at creating streamlined NEPA processes or providing clear criteria for subsequent decisions? Less directly, maybe comparative study of how tiering works in other agencies.

    For question 2, study what needs to be added to efficiency in terms of evaluating effectiveness. Add to that various ways of operationalizing efficiency. Time to decision makes sense as no organization wants to expend resources on cumbersome processes that could be done without that expenditure, but just looking at time to decision gets the agency accused of wanting to avoid NEPA.

    • This is very thoughtful, A. and thanks for the cites. When I worked on Process Predicament, we had an award program. I remember one Region 9 District that submitted that they had increased efficiency by -throwing out parts of the project that were controversial. So I think defining success will be difficult but may be a place to start- at least to discuss different ways of looking at it.

      • I guess that can work in some projects. Not sure that would work in projects like travel management, approving timber sales, oil and gas leasing, etc. where everything is controversial. Projects like that are inherently adversarial with clear winners and losers no matter what the land manager does.

    • Question 1 has been there since NFMA was invented, and I’m not aware of any serious efforts to answer it. (From a distance, and knowing Larry Larson, it looked to me like “Process Predicament” was done to support a predetermined outcome of getting rid of process instead of objectively looking at costs and benefits.)

      Once upon a time there were hopes that forest plan NEPA could do it all, so little or no project NEPA would be needed (sort of like condition-based management). I think it took one court case to get the Forest Service to see the light of a “two-step” (plan-to-project) NEPA process. But I’ve seen little effort to try to design those steps in a way that would make them work together most efficiently – specifically, how should a forest plan be written to maximize its value to efficient project analysis. My suspicion is that a plan that prohibits things that are the most controversial would keep risky projects from even being started, and that would maximize efficiency. (Along with a plan that provides specific desired conditions to steer projects to the places where projects would get the most buck bang.)

      • Yes, I’m aware that predicament is baked into the interaction of NEPA and NFMA, I’d have to do more work than I have time to at the moment to think this all the way through but as a preliminary stab: who cares? Not to be crass but it seems, well, silly to act as if some of these ways of doing things that have been around for the entire lifespan of a given law are written in the stars and cannot be changed.

        The second piece is a solution that would work on the surface level but only by contravening the purpose or at least some of the purposes of multiple use public lands.

        That is, controversial purposes are baked in to the laws establishing this stuff. If you can’t change them via the political process then should you be able to in effect change the law through rulemaking? A perennial question but very relevant for federal lands, where rulemaking has been used understandably to cut through decades old stagnant controversy. Is that sustainable, or should all of the agendas in play be forced to bring these things back to the legislative sphere? Is controversy a meaningful measure when divorced from the actual political (note political not policy) process?

        I tend towards a slightly negative opinion there. Controversy, unfiltered, as it were, through legislation and the occasional judicial decision, would simply cede management agendas to groups that are loud and well financed and well lawyered. I’m aware that this sounds like an idealistic view of the process but it’s only because allowing unfiltered controversy to dictate management direction is even less accountable that the legislative process.

        Federal agencies absolutely need to follow the law but when the interpretation of the law is driven by something as subjective and unaccountable as controversy as defined by self selected arbiters, I see no winners there save those that excel at creating controversy.

        to disclose my background assumptions here: We got the crazy quilt of environmental law through elected officials and the legislative process. NEPA and NFMA as interpreted do much legwork in balancing multiple use project to project, but groups that fundamentally oppose multiple use need to maximize opportunities to revisit and recreate controversy in order to hamper extractive or commercial aspects of multiple use that they oppose on principle. Cynically, the crazy quilt needs to work poorly to provide the opportunity to make policy gains when their agenda lacks widespread acceptance particularly at the local level as well as in legislative bodies and many parts of the judiciary. Efficiencies in the planning process represent a threat to that because ineffective planning processes are themselves a means.

        • Absolutely agree with you. One thing I’ve noticed in land use planning is that environmental groups get an infinite number of tries to lock up land. Flawed plans just give them another chance for a do-over so they can shut down more uses the next time. Once restrictions are imposed they are never loosened. The victories of those seeking to prohibit multiple uses are permanent, while wins for multiple use are only ever temporary. The preservationists will always have another chance to win more restrictions a few years down the line.

          • Precisely. The creation of multiple chances to block projects is on the one hand an understandable outcome of messy processes and conflicts (layers of review allow the agency to move forward and not toss out previous planning as worthless) but it in no way follows that maximizing those chances is good management, good policy, or good sense.

            “Banning controversial projects” as jon suggests is simply coded speak for toss out what gets litigated by engo’s and nobody will have problems anymore. Which would gain efficiency at the cost of casting aside the entire purpose of multiple use lands. If that purpose needs to change, get it through congress, don’t foist it on agencies and the public under the guise of “needing more analysis” or endless recommendation of more wilderness

        • I wasn’t advocating that land managers should agree with all demands to not do things. I was only pointing out that I never saw much interest from them in trying to write a forest plan to make implementation easier by anticipating battles that otherwise would have to be fought project-by-project. Preserving discretion and autonomy usually seem to prevail over efficiency, which makes me less sympathetic to complaints about project NEPA.

          • I agree with Anonymous and Patrick here..
            My experience is that in the plan, folks work out that the FS agrees to not do things in certain places. In reality the battle is rejoined whenever the FS tries to do things in the places previously agreed to be OK.

            I think that this is reflective of a deeper annoyance. The feeling that the way (some) ENGO’s work (and I’ve documented) is that each time you think you reach an agreement, they want more. For one project, I had a table of all the comment periods and what a particular organization said they wanted, how we gave it to them and how they wanted more in the next comment period. Annoying!

            Just like Jim Furnish says about the FS, dealing with folks like this makes it hard to trust. In Jim’s case people don’t trust the FS (perhaps globally based on their own experiences locally). OTOH, I think FS folks trust or mistrust ENGO organization by organization; but perhaps there could be a lingering kind of generic mistrust..

            • “In reality the battle is rejoined whenever the FS tries to do things in the places previously agreed to be OK.” Especially now, I don’t see working much out in the plan; instead I see preservation of FLEXIBILITY (often euphamized as “adaptive management”) – let’s keep all options open and not prohibit anything. I guess I haven’t seen the goalposts being moved so much as, “We agree to disagree about this, and we’ll fight about it some more when we decide to take an action we know you won’t agree with.”

                • You (the sentence just before my previous quote): “My experience is that in the PLAN, folks work out that the FS agrees to not do things in certain places.”


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