How environmental analysis inadvertently drains the Forest Service budget

How environmental analysis inadvertently drains the Forest Service budget
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During a visit to her native Washington State, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen told an audience her agency was failing to meet the challenges of unhealthy forests and catastrophic wildfires. She admitted the agency is not reducing the risk, and “America’s forests are in crisis.”  With at least 80 million acres of National Forest System lands at risk of severe fire, Chief Christiansen understands the depth of this crisis and is working to change the culture and practices of her agency.

The Forest Service took an important step forward by releasing proposed changes to modernize how the agency complies with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This environmental law, initially approved by Congress in 1969, requires federal agencies to report the potential environmental effects of proposed actions.   Most agencies comply with this law without draining their financial and human resources, even for major infrastructure projects. 

Opponents of forest management are predictably attacking this effort in partisan terms, though the Forest Service’s approach may bring the agency in closer compliance with existing regulations issued by the Obama administration’s Council on Environmental Quality. And if the agency successfully completes this process, the Forest Service will be better positioned to utilize many of the new tools and resources that have been recently approved by Congress with bipartisan support. 

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Changes are needed because the Forest Service has been negatively influenced by anti-forestry activism and the real and perceived threat of litigation over NEPA compliance.  Consequently, the agency developed a risk-averse culture, requiring its people to spend more time preparing paperwork when they should be actively managing and mitigating the threats to multiple-use public lands, especially those that have been identified as suitable for timber harvests.  

The Forest Service’s current NEPA compliance guidelines date back to 1992, at a time when timber harvests and other management activities dramatically declined on national forests.  Anti-forestry groups have exploited NEPA to bring forest projects to a halt, preventing the agency from reducing fuel loads and promoting the natural resiliency of the forests.  In the past 30 years, forest science and technology has improved significantly, and public lands managers understand the benefits of logging, thinning and prescribed burning for healthier forests, improved wildlife habitat, and cleaner air and water for nearby communities. 

With such an outdated process, it typically takes the agency over three years to complete an environmental impact statement and over two years to complete an environmental assessment.  It’s estimated the Forest Service spends more than $356 million annually to conduct NEPA analysis and compliance requirements on forest management projects. It is no accident the Forest Service’s focus shifted from forestry to fire management as wildfire suppression costs have consistently exhausted the agency’s budget and undermined its core mission.  

After an exhaustive process that included examining years of environmental data, the agency determined its current process for environmental analysis was redundant and self-defeating.  The proposed changes signals the Forest Service is ready to do things differently, to increase the pace and scale of treatment and forest restoration while upholding environmental safeguards and public participation.

The agency's updates would create a new series of "categorical exclusions," a classification under NEPA excluding certain routine activities from more time-consuming analysis.  For forest management, the rules would allow the Forest Service to expedite forest restoration projects and treatments of forests that are at greatest risk of wildfire, insects and disease. Such use of categorical exclusions is nothing new; both Democrats and Republicans have supported the use of this tool to accelerate forest restoration and wildfire mitigation.

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Anti-forestry groups have focused their opposition on a categorical exclusion that would expedite “ecosystem restoration” treatments at a maximum 4,200 acres, suggesting to their supporters this policy would result in large-scale clear-cuts.  However, categorical exclusions do not mandate logging, rather they give public lands managers the flexibility to use a range of tools to meet the objectives of a restoration project as long as they are permitted by an existing forest plan.

Under the existing process, the Forest Service is unable to keep up with declining forest health as well as the impacts of climate change. Forest scientists have consistently called for landscape-scale treatments in order to restore public lands and protect our communities and wildlife.  The proposed rules, as written, likely do not go far enough to address this forest health crisis.  But it shows the agency is responsive and are working to satisfy congressional and public support for better forest management.  

Nick Smith is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-profit, non-partisan grassroots coalition that advocates for active management of America’s federally-owned forests.