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Nation's Most Important Environmental Law at Risk

Big changes are being proposed to the country’s first major environmental law — the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Some of the changes would drastically roll back public comment periods, eliminating the voices of hikers like you in proposals that impact our public lands, and the activities we enjoy on them.

Big changes are being proposed to the country’s first major environmental law — the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. This act, and the environmental reviews that it requires, are a cornerstone for gathering public input for projects on federal land.

Some of the proposed changes would drastically roll back public comment periods, eliminating the voices of hikers like you on proposals that impact our public lands, and the activities we enjoy on them.

Act now to protect your right to speak up for the environment.

Steven Robinson.jpg
Speak up now about the changes coming to NEPA. Photo by Steven Robinson.

What does NEPA do?

President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law on January 1, 1970, almost 50 years ago. It was and remains one of the most vital ways that the American public can have their voice heard in environmental decisions. In fact, the federal government itself describes NEPA as “our basic national charter for protection of the environment.” It has not been revised since 2008.

NEPA requires that major proposals on federal lands, like our national parks and forests, are analyzed for their effects on the environment while making sure we all are able to participate in the decisions made about our public lands. 

The changes that are proposed would greatly expand the number of type of Categorical Exclusions that the U.S. Forest Service could use. In other words, these changes would mean that some projects that would currently give opportunities for public comment may no longer require that, or allow discretion for public input to fall on the land manager.

But what is a categorical exclusion anyway?

Let’s take a step back.

With NEPA, Congress established the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which oversees federal agencies to make sure they meet NEPA requirements. The council also reviews Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) written by the Forest Service and other federal agencies. 

The major gripe with the EIS process is time. According to the CEQ, the average EIS completion time (from notice of intent to the record of decision) was 4.5 years with 25% taking more than 6 years.

Federal agencies can also submit an environmental assessment. If an assessment is completed and no significant environmental impacts are found, then the agency doesn’t need to file an Environmental Impact Statement. Environmental assessments have become a popular alternative to the full Environmental Impact Statement, but they still take an average of nearly 2 years to complete.  

As an alternative to the above options, agencies can submit proposals as a categorical exclusion. CEs are activities that agencies have found, from research and experience, do not have a significant environmental impact and do not need extensive environmental analysis. On average, the that process takes 206 days to complete, significantly shorter than both the EIS and EA. One of the major reasons for the much shorter time frame? Categorical exclusions do not require a public comment period.

What’s at stake

On June 13, the Forest Service released proposed rules to amend NEPA regulations. One of the newly proposed changes would adopt seven new CEs and expand two existing CEs. The result would be wide array of projects would be shielded from any environmental review or public process.

The proposed changes greatly expand the number and type of CEs available to the Forest Service. This means many projects that would have once needed an EIS, and thus legally required public comment, would now fit into the category of a categorical exclusion. That would leave the decision on whether to accept public input up to the land manager

An example of a newly-proposed categorical exclusion would broadly define ecosystem restoration or resilience activities on up to 7,300 acres, including commercial logging of up to 4,200 acres, as long as it includes at least one restoration add-on. In other words? The CE would make it possible to log up to 6.6 square miles without public input or environmental analysis.

The outcome? Our voices could be removed from about 93% of all Forest Service projects. In some cases, notice to the public would be completely eliminated. As described by the Forest Service, 93.3% of all Forest Service decisions will no longer require advance notice or public comment. 

How WTA and the outdoor community benefit from the current NEPA process

As the Outdoor Alliance wrote, “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.”

It provides the public, people like you and me, the ability to have a voice in the decisions about the environment and the places we hold dear. NEPA also allows organizations like WTA to engage and provide a voice for the hiking community on efforts like trail- and recreation-management plans for our national forests.

As 2010 report, “NEPA Success Stories: Celebrating Transparency and Government,” summed it up nicely: 

  1. NEPA recognizes that when the public and federal experts work together, better decisions are made.
  2. Public participation really matters.
  3. NEPA requires the government to explain itself.

The proposed changes are opposed by not just recreation organizations like WTA, The Mountaineers, Cascade Forest Conservancy, Washington Wild and Outdoor Alliance, but also nationally recognized groups like The Wilderness Society and the National Audubon Society.

Act now

The Forest Service is accepting comments on the proposal until Aug. 26 (a recently-extended deadline). 

Please take two minutes to sign and add your perspective and concerns to the drafted letter below where it says INSERT WHY YOU RECREATE HERE. Personalizing the letter will ensure that your comment is considered.


Rod Farlee on Nation's Most Important Environmental Law at Risk

What specific categorical exclusion is WTA opposed to? The one making it easier for USFS to approve trail maintenance, brushing, regrading, or the installation of waterbars? The one making it easier for USFS to maintain roads to trailheads, replace failing culverts and clear and brush ditches? We are very aware that WTA's partners at USFS are simply overwealmed by paperwork and procedural requirements for every trivial project. This change will enable USFS to more quickly respond to recreational needs of hikers. WTA might better serve us if it reconsiders it's "knee-jerk" opposition to more common-sense rulemaking that may allow the USFS system to work better... for all of us!

Posted by:

Rod Farlee on Aug 20, 2019 05:02 PM

Christina Hickman on Nation's Most Important Environmental Law at Risk

Hi, Rod. Thank you for your comment.
WTA wants to ensure that the voices of the hiking community and all other public land users are taken into account on proposals that impact our federal lands. For decades, we've seen public comments work for the good of trail projects in Washington. Gathering input from hikers and other folks who visit and enjoy these spaces is an important part of creating a sustainable and equitable future for our shared spaces. It is vital to keep all voices at the table — and these proposed changes will jeopardize that goal.

Posted by:

Christina Hickman on Aug 21, 2019 04:55 PM

PattyL. on Nation's Most Important Environmental Law at Risk

I read the proposed rule and think it will help the Forest service more quickly respond to user needs,including those of the hiking community to which I belong.

Posted by:

PattyL. on Aug 21, 2019 05:42 PM

Ridgelinehiker on Nation's Most Important Environmental Law at Risk

From a fellow friend and avid hiker... WTA's response?

"I have not read the proposed regulation changes yet, but there are a few things that WTA is either exaggerating or is misrepresenting; 1) There is no way that a project is going to go from needing an EIS to only needing a Categorical Exclusion ) CE; 2) Even a CE is an analysis and is required to demonstrate that it meets the category for exclusion; 3) Exclusions are created for projects that the FS has done many, many times without "significant" effects; 4) Not all logging is the same. It is understandable that someone may be concerned about 4200 acres of clearcut. I doubt very much if that would fit the category for exclusion. On the other hand, most people would hardly notice the effects of 4200 acres of thinning within a few years of treatment. Excessive costs associated with complying with NEPA have kept the FS from accomplishing much needed fuel treatments,which includes timber harvest. The FS even has to write CEs to reforest after wildfire. What a waste of money!"

"After looking at these proposed changes more closely. I am in favor of the changes. Many of the changes are ones that we had been hoping and begging for years. The biggest ones for ecosystem management is that the time consuming public scoping process for timber harvest in support of fuels management and ecosystem restoration, which rarely resulted in any changes to the proposed action, is no longer required. The other biggy is dropping the requirement for analyzing an alternative that does not meet the purpose and need of the project, which is a huge waste of time. We have been begging for these changes for 20 years. Note that the FS is still limited to 250 acres of fire salvage under a CE. When we are talking about 100,000 acre fires, 250 acres is not even a drop in the bucket,and the requirement for a CE for planting after a fire is still in effect (oh well, maybe next time). I am surprised that the WTA did not have any issues with the new categories regarding roads and trails (CEs 24-25). I would think that would have more potential to affect the core activities of the organization."

Posted by:

Ridgelinehiker on Aug 24, 2019 08:54 AM