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E&E News on NEPA rewrite

Published June 30th, 2020 in Conservation, News, Restoration, UW Blogs

FOREST SERVICE

Agency finishes NEPA rewrite, waits for White House

Marc Heller, E&E News reporter

Published: Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Forest Service’s National Environmental Policy Act rewrite is taking a backseat to the bigger Council on Environmental Quality rewrite.┬áCecilio Ricardo/Forest Service/USDA/Flickr

The Forest Service’s plan to speed environmental reviews of forest management projects is running into a slowdown of its own.

Officials have all but completed their rewrite of procedures under the National Environmental Policy Act but have been told the plan has to wait for a broader NEPA revision across federal agencies to be completed, groups following the issue told E&E News.

The Forest Service’s final rule to streamline NEPA reviews has been sitting at the White House Office of Management and Budget since April 7, according to OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Revisions to agency-specific plans are possible, the administration has said, to ensure that the agency’s plan and the broader one from the Council on Environmental Quality agree.

The shuffling of environmental regulations has on-the-ground implications if they survive expected court challenges. Forest projects, including timber and mining, could move faster in certain circumstances thanks to categorical exclusions from NEPA.

Officials and industry groups say the NEPA process has become far too drawn-out, attracting lawsuits that sideline forest restoration and economically beneficial work. Environmental groups such as the Western Environmental Law Center say advocates for more intensive forest management exaggerate those challenges (Greenwire, Jan. 15).

Instead, the groups blame staff shortages at the Forest Service for slowdowns.

The Forest Service didn’t have an immediate comment on the shifting timeline for the NEPA revisions. Earlier this year, the agency said it didn’t expect its own plans to be affected.

Groups following the issue told E&E News it’s not clear whether both rewrites can be completed before the end of the year, raising the possibility that a new administration will inherit them.

On the other hand, the rules are important enough that the administration will probably push to finish them, said Robyn Whitney, policy director for the National Association of State Foresters, which supports the move.

In earlier stages, the two proposals appeared to diverge in a few ways. The Forest Service proposal called for reviews of cumulative and indirect environmental effects, which the CEQ plan didn’t, for instance.

But they agreed on categorical exclusions, and the CEQ proposal called for limiting environmental impact statements to no more than two years.

Earlier this month, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote a memorandum to the Forest Service reiterating the department’s commitment to streamlining NEPA reviews and shortening the length of related documents.

The bureaucratic shuffle has left groups wondering how the administration will handle the two sets of regulations. The Western Environmental Law Center has been anticipating a CEQ release possibly next week, said Susan Jane Brown, a lawyer with the center.

“Lots of muddy water out there,” Brown said.

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