Controversial NEPA Rule Chops Forest Protections, Saves Forest Service Resources

A new rule from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) expands and revises “categorical exclusions,” designations that remove the need for an environmental assessment for certain activities under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The changes will make it easier for certain projects and activities to be carried out in forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service said that these updates to NEPA will “help expedite environmental analysis and decision making,” and add flexibility to support the Forest Service’s efforts to upkeep forests in the United States. The rule noted that some comments claimed the revisions could diminish environmental outcomes and reduce the ability of the public to comment on Forest Service actions. The final rule was announced on Wednesday, and went into effect as it was published in the Federal Register on Thursday. 

“These changes will ensure we do the appropriate level of environmental analysis to fit the work, locations and conditions,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in the USDA’s press release. “The new categorical exclusions will ultimately improve our ability to maintain and repair the infrastructure people depend on to use and enjoy their national forests – such as roads, trails, campgrounds and other facilities.”

Various concerns were raised about the new rule. Some were concerned the changes could lead to more abuse because it limits the requirements for public comment and environmental review before some projects; others said it may increase potential costs of litigation. A final area of concern is that the rule could lead to “inadequate environmental analysis,” and thereby undermine the mission of the department. Opponents also argued that there was not enough need to justify the lightened regulations. Many changes were reportedly made to the proposed rule after public comments. 

The rule explains that the amendments, including updates to categorical exclusions and the addition of a provision, are meant to help use resources more effectively. It establishes six categorical exclusions, which related to recreation sites and special uses, administrative sites, road management projects, and restoration projects. It also consolidated two categorical exclusions into one and expanded two other existing categorical exclusions.  

A summary of the rule explained that “the amendments in the final rule will increase efficiency in the Agency’s environmental analysis and decision-making while meeting NEPA’s requirements and fully honoring the Agency’s environmental stewardship responsibilities.” The final rule adds a Determination of NEPA Adequacy provision, which outlines a process for determining whether a previously completed Forest Service NEPA analysis can satisfy NEPA’s requirements for a subsequently proposed action.

The rule said that it is “consistent” with the intent of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to ensure that environmental reviews are consistent and predictable and reduce burdens and delays. It explained that the agency’s resources are increasingly moving towards wildland fire management, which in 2018 received 57 percent of Forest Service funding, compared to 16 percent in 1995. The rule follows updated CEQ regulations, which went into effect in September.