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Commissioners comment on proposed changes to NEPA rules

By Michael Howell

 

The Ravalli County Commissioners have responded to a federal request to comment on some proposed rule changes concerning the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Comments were requested on four “areas of efficiency” in NEPA procedures and environmental analysis.

The federal government’s NEPA Services Group was seeking comments on the processes and analysis requirements that can be modified, reduced, or eliminated in order to reduce time and cost while maintaining science-based, high-quality analysis; public involvement; and honoring agency stewardship responsibilities.

The commissioners state that NEPA’s “litigation driven approach has forced the Forest Service into exhaustive NEPA analysis…NEPA is a procedural law and does not require alternatives that minimize impact to the environment.”

They state that National Forest lands should be treated and utilized as multiple-use natural resources and claim, “Potential endangered species habitat should not be considered in the environmental analysis unless it can be determined that there is a resident population of an endangered species.”

Commissioner Jeff Burrows said that projects should not be held up due to potential habitat that has no endangered species currently living in it.

Asked to comment on approaches to landscape-scale analysis and decision making under NEPA that facilitate restoration of National Forest System lands, the Commissioners said they support landscape-scale analysis “provided that the project level decisions can be made quickly and do not require additional analysis.”

In response to a question about the use of categorical exclusions (CEs) to exempt certain projects from NEPA review, the Commissioners suggest that any vegetation management project on lands already designated in the Forest Plan as “suitable for timber production” should undergo an “abbreviated NEPA analysis” and local forest service decision makers should be given more “flexibility” in the use of categorical exclusions. They call the current guidelines “too restrictive and narrow in scope.” They suggest extending CE consideration to projects in the Wildland Urban Interface. They also recommend that recovery projects located in areas catastrophically impacted by fire, insect infestation or disease get CE consideration.

In terms of expanding and enhancing coordination with other agencies, tribes and local governments, the Commissioners recommend that coordination be ongoing and not limited to specific projects or steps within the NEPA process. They also suggest that Forest Supervisors and District Rangers be given more authority to enter into formal coordination agreements with state and local partners.

The commissioners are concerned that the local government is being marginalized in the process by being treated as just another public comment.

“Counties are often treated by federal agencies as though they were any other stakeholder in the planning process, rather than cooperating agencies recognized for having a range of expertise on the impacts of Forest Service actions,” they wrote.

Ravalli County is also concerned that the federal government’s process is duplicative and overly time-consuming, leading to slower, smaller projects and increased potential for litigation. Streamlining the NEPA process and allowing more flexibility through Categorical Exclusions to local forest decision makers will allow the Forest Service to increase the pace and scale of beneficial forest projects,” the letter concludes.

Commissioner Burrows noted that in the case of these comments and the recent comments on the disposition of Wilderness Study Areas, there is some misunderstanding about the role of the Bitterroot Collaborative Committee. Burrows said it was clear from the inception that the collaborative was an autonomous group unconnected to the Board of County Commissioners.

“This Board doesn’t waive its right to comment on issues and the collaborative was never meant to be an advisory board to the commission,” said Burrows. He said the Bitterroot Collaborative could comment on these issues and submit comments on these issues just like everybody else.

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