A look at the NEPA process and how the planning team is approaching landscape-scale project planning
The mission of the Forest Service is to “sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” They are responsible for managing National Forest lands in the public’s interest in a way that ensures the public has the opportunity to engage and provide meaningful input on actions they propose. This raises the question, ‘how can we work together to do what is right for the land, while also enhancing social and economic vitality?’
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was established to ensure federal agencies considered public input when proposing activities that could have environmental impacts. This legislation was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on January 1, 1970, and was designed to apply across the board to any federal agency contemplating an action that could have significant environmental impacts. NEPA established federal agency responsibilities, process guidelines, and requirements to inform the public when initiating a proposed action and to invite comments on a project.
NEPA requires federal agencies to describe the environmental consequences of a proposed action and consider a range of alternative ways to meet the purpose and need of a project. NEPA does not require an agency to choose the most environmentally friendly alternative, but it does require that an agency make an informed decision by taking a “hard look” and disclosing impacts (both good and bad) to the public.
Forest Service project proposals are listed by national forest in the Schedule of Proposed Actions, which is released quarterly by each forest. The schedule lists all the projects the Forest Service will be working on in the coming months, as well as a contact person for each project.
National Forests propose project actions with a varying degree of complexity and scale. Simple, small projects typically take the Forest Service three months or less to complete NEPA requirements. However, complex projects involving many connected actions, larger acreages, numerous resource conditions for measurement, high public interest, and a broad range of possible decisions often takes several years to complete NEPA requirements.
National Forests in the Pacific Northwest typically plan complex vegetation projects across 10,000 to 30,000 acres at a time, with each project taking three to four years to complete NEPA. This approach would likely take about fifty years to address the vegetation needs alone across a typical 1.4 million acre National Forest. With 2.3 million forest acres in need of treatment in the Blue Mountains alone, we are simply not keeping pace with forest growth and increased risk to human lives, private property, and other highly valued resources and assets from the threat of wildfire. If we want to promote a healthy and productive forest, we must consider and experiment with different approaches that address this dilemma while meeting our obligations to be consistent with laws, regulations, and policies.
The Forest Resiliency Project is one attempt to tackle this important issue. This project was intentionally designed at a large scale, across 1.2 million acres (total) on portions of the Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, and it makes use of the best available science and modeling methods to inform a large landscape-scale analysis. This experimental project tests what is needed for a forest manager to make an informed decision that discloses resource impacts from proposed activities.
Some of the methods the team has identified to date that are expected to increase the acres considered in one NEPA document include:
Focus on thinning and prescribed fire in areas with the greatest restoration need;
Identify mapped treatment units and apply prescriptions that would provide flexibility to forest managers during implementation. These treatments would be guided by a set of mitigation measures, limits on treatments by watershed based on Forest Plan Standards and Guidelines, or other constraints;
Defer some survey work to after the NEPA decision has been made. This approach would require forest managers to complete and document a field review process either prior to making a decision or prior to implementation.
No matter the method, engaging communities in the Forest Resiliency Project is essential to achieving a truly resilient landscape. Landscape-scale NEPA absolutely depends on strong collaborative relationships, connections to science, and broad agreement about the purpose of the project. The team is working with interested stakeholders to understand a variety of issues and concerns and they aim to make a difference in addressing the forest restoration need and improving agency efficiency in applying the NEPA. By working together, learning from each other’s successes and learning from each other’s mistakes, we can accomplish far greater work than could ever be accomplished by working alone.
This is the eleventh of twelve issues of Features from the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy brought to you by Sustainable Northwest and the U.S. Forest Service Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team. This monthly series highlights the environmental and economic challenges and opportunities present in the Blue Mountains region, and includes updates from the Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project.