Comments from the TPA for the NEPA Streamlining

The Forest Service is Seeking to Significantly Reduce the Amount of Environmental Analysis Necessary for Trail Maintenance

By Scott Jones, Esq.

The Forest Service recently released a revised rule updating its planning regulations to maintain or restore ecological functions and improve the Agency’s ability to manage facilities, roads, and trails.  This Forest Service proposal would be a quantum leap forward in reducing the amount of analysis and paperwork needed for the basic maintenance and operations of trail networks on public lands. These changes will allow the Agency and partners to more efficiently implement projects that support the management and operation of agency infrastructure, including administrative sites and facilities, recreation sites and facilities, and trails, roads, and bridges.

The good, and there is plenty.  Overall this is a significant revision of the current regulations so the list below is far from complete but any additional clarity around the use of lower levels of NEPA on basic issues like these is a step forward for trails. Examples of clarity around the use of lower levels of analysis would be:

  • Land managers can now construct trailhead facilities like parking lots and toilets with a Categorical Exclusion;
  • Allow land managers to construct/realign up to 5 miles of new NFS road and reconstruct up to 10 miles of NFS roads;
  • Clarifying that managers can move user-created routes to system routes with a categorical exclusion under certain circumstances; and
  • Allow issuance of permits for events that are occurring on existing USFS roads and trails.

Our one concern is the term “Potential Wilderness” is used throughout the document but not defined.  The lack of a definition for this term is one of the largest hurdles faced in discussions around what NEPA is necessary for a project.  The lack of this definition could undermine the effectiveness of many of the other revisions, as it has been our experience that citizen Wilderness proposals often bear little relationship to conditions on the ground and reflect legislation that has not moved in decades.

We would also note that the use of Categorical Exclusions relates to inherently small projects, which we do not anticipate altering the Wilderness characteristics of any area. Our ask on this would be that potential Wilderness be limited to Recommended Wilderness in the forest plan, in order to align with the standards in the remainder of the Proposed Rule.  Wilderness recommendations from special interest groups should not be given any priority in analysis.