With an eye toward dual goals of access to healthy and productive federal forestland and ensuring these lands are managed in an environmentally sound manner, Farm Bureau is recommending several changes related to the U.S. Forest Service’s use of the National Environmental Policy Act.
NEPA was enacted to make certain that environmental impacts are considered when the federal government is making decisions. While the law provides a general framework for accomplishing this, the Council on Environmental Quality established the NEPA compliance process. The courts, too, have played a significant role in defining NEPA requirements through the many lawsuits brought to interpret its provisions.
As a result, according to Farm Bureau, NEPA compliance has merely become a box to be checked in the decision-making process, rather than a driver of meaningful discussion of environmental impacts.
Based on a series of questions from the U.S. Forest Service, Farm Bureau commented on several aspects of NEPA compliance.
While the Council on Environmental Quality Guidance says environmental impact statements, which are sometimes required under NEPA, should be less than 150 pages, Farm Bureau pointed out that the Forest Service is notorious for EISs that run several hundred pages, with associated documentation accounting for several thousand additional pages.
To remedy this, Farm Bureau said, the Forest Service should align its NEPA handbook and manual direction with the direction from the CEQ, which calls for careful and proportionate use of NEPA tools.
“Specifically, CEQ regulations indicate the text of a final EIS that addressed the purpose and need, alternatives, affected environment, and environmental consequences should normally be less than 150 pages, and a final EIS for proposals of unusual scope or complexity should normally be less than 300 pages,” the group said.
In addition, Farm Bureau cautioned against the use of using landscape-scale planning for forest management for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s possible that approach would prohibit other uses and conflict with the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act and the principles of multiple use in general.
“There are no safeguards to prevent a forest supervisor from using landscape scale planning to eliminate uses like livestock grazing from national forests,” Farm Bureau pointed out.
Another stumbling block related to the application of NEPA concerns emergency situations in which quick action is required by the agency to address an immediate problem, such as wildfires and pest outbreaks.
“The Forest Service should further revise its policies to allow for more workable procedures for addressing these situations and at the same time maintaining the integrity of NEPA requirements,” Farm Bureau said.
The group supports the elimination of the requirement to consider alternatives when there are no unresolved conflicts concerning resource issues, as well as the clarification of the definition of “cumulative effects” and the limitation of required cumulative effects analysis to known impacts of previous management in the project area.
In terms of grazing land, Farm Bureau encouraged the Forest Service to cooperate in a timely manner with permittees; use proven and accepted scientific analysis methods; use prior and concurrent consultations with credible third parties; and evaluate and make decisions on an allotment-by-allotment basis.
Emphasizing that national forests often greatly impact local communities, especially in the West where national forests can be a significant part of a county area, Farm Bureau urged the Forest Service to ensure local governments have a prominent role in the forest planning process. In addition, an effective state, county and local government agency coordination process “should allow the Forest Service to negotiate in good faith and to display valid, compelling, peer-reviewed evidence when federal decisions are opposed by a majority of the affected counties and conservation district boards.”
The questions that spurred Farm Bureau’s comments were put forth by the Forest Service in an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.