Monday, December 18, 2006

Forest Service Exempts Forest Plans From NEPA Review

Dec 15: In a final directive published in the Federal Register [71 FR 75481-75495], the U.S. Forest Service announced that effective December 15, 2006, it was revising procedures for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulations. The final directive amends Forest Service Handbook (FSH) 1909.15, chapter 30 that describes categorical exclusions; that is, categories of actions which do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment, and therefore, normally do not require further analysis and documentation in either an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS). The amendment adds one such category of actions to the Agency's NEPA procedures for final decisions on proposals to develop, amend, or revise land management plans.

Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso issued a statement on the action saying, "Today's new rule is part and parcel of the Bush Administration's long-running agenda to take the 'public' out of public lands, and hand our national forests over to big energy and timber interests. For the first time since modern forest planning began more than 25 years ago, the Forest Service is seeking to exclude the long-term management plans that govern each national forest from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This new rule is an attempt to hide the administration's plans for our forests from the public scrutiny required under NEPA... In recent years, the Forest Service has created and widely used a number of categorical exclusions that prevent NEPA review for individual timber sales. Excluding the forest plans themselves from NEPA review means that a great many of the agency's actions will never receive a hard look at all, at any level of forest management, much less involve the public in a meaningful way. Americans have a right to expect more from the agency that oversees our common trust, America's national forests."

In announcing the final directive, the Forest Service said, "The environmental review has documented that writing management plans has no effect on the environment, which qualifies the individual plans of each National Forest for categorical exclusion from individual study under the National Environmental Policy Act... The new rule improves the planning process by actively involving the public at every step. The Forest Service first collaborates with communities to identify how forests should improve in the future. The public participates throughout the process as plans are refined and finalized... forest plan revisions will now take 2-3 years instead of over 5 years with the previous rule. Under the 2005 planning rule, full environmental analysis will continue at the project level where public involvement and the best available science can inform on the ground decision-making."

Access the FR announcement (click here). Access the Forest Service release (click here). Access the Forest Service website for the directive (click here). Access the National Forest Management Act Planning website for additional information (click here). Access an Earthjustice announcement (click here). [*Land]

Note: During the holidays while we are on our annual break, we will be posting some articles from recent issues of our daily newsletters. We will return with timely daily posts each day on January 2, 2006.