Almost anytime there’s a chance for you to weigh in with land managers about an important decision—from trying to fight off mining in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters to the creation of a new management plan for your local National Forest—that opportunity exists because of a law called the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Right now, the Forest Service is proposing big changes to the way it implements the law that could drastically roll back your say in how public lands are managed.
At its core, NEPA does two main things. First, it requires that major federal actions are analyzed for their effects on the environment and on recreation—basically just requiring informed decision making. Second, NEPA ensures that the American people get to have a say in those decisions—public participation. NEPA is arguably the most important law for environmental quality and public lands management in the U.S. since it requires that we measure the impact of big changes to public lands – like building a new mine or enlarging a parking lot – and study the potential impacts on air and water quality, recreation access, potential pollution, and more.
Industry groups and extractive companies who know their actions have a big effect on the environment would like to see NEPA rolled back to make it easier and faster for them to develop public lands. The Forest Service also has not been very efficient in how they’ve done environmental analysis in the past, and there are legitimate reasons for them to pursue some modest reforms. It’s essential that they proceed cautiously, though, because changes to NEPA could come at a big cost for the environment and for your ability to participate in decisions around public lands and waters.
Right now, the Forest Service is considering some broad, potentially devastating changes to how it implements NEPA that could scale back your ability to have a voice over your public lands. Their proposed changes would roll back the public process from about 93% of all Forest Service projects, and in some cases, eliminate public notice altogether.
The Forest Service is accepting comments from the community until August 26 (a recently-extended deadline). We’ve made it easy to submit a comment directly to the Forest Service about NEPA and the public process and would encourage everyone who cares about public lands to do so.
Here are some more details about what’s going on, or you can read our full comment letter to the Forest Service soon.
Last year, the Forest Service held a number of roundtables on how to improve and update NEPA regulations. Outdoor Alliance and its member groups and staff participated in these roundtables. Due to budget and staffing cuts, staff turnover, and inconsistencies in how NEPA is utilized across the Agency, the Forest Service is not always the most efficient when undertaking a NEPA analysis. Most everyone agrees that there are opportunities to improve NEPA. However, the revisions proposed by the Forest Service would undermine NEPA’s bedrock principles of government transparency, accountability, public involvement, and science-based decision-making.
The Forest Service’s proposed revisions would eliminate the current requirement to conduct scoping for projects being considered under a categorical exclusion or environmental assessment. Scoping is a key process that informs the public that a land management agency is considering changes, and is the only opportunity for the public to weigh in on a project that is “categorically excluded” from analysis. It’s also important for environmental assessments, because it gives the public an opportunity to weigh in on a project at the very beginning, and alerts people to the fact that the Forest Service is considering a project in the first place. This change means you’d be kept in the dark on up to 93% of Forest Service projects.
Outdoor recreationists in Bozeman, Montana recently experienced why scoping is important. In 2017, the Custer Gallatin National Forest proposed a vegetation management project in Bridger Mountains. This “North Bridger Vegetation Management Project” fell under a Categorical Exclusion that applies to certain vegetation projects under 3,000 acres. Because the Forest Service conducted scoping, the public was able to review the proposed project at the outset and tell the Forest Service about their concerns over how the project would impact outdoor recreation. Because of this public involvement, the project was modified to protect wildlife and minimize impacts to hiking and mountain biking trails, backcountry skiing, and snowmobiling. Without scoping, nobody would have even known about the project until it was a done deal.
If these revisions go through, you’ll be cut out of the conversation on about 93% of Forest Service projects, leaving lawsuits as the only option for public participation in Forest Service decision-making, which is onerous, expensive, and time consuming for everyone.
The Forest Service is accepting public comments on these proposed revisions until August 26. We’ve made it easy to share your thoughts directly with the Forest Service through the tool below.