The U.S. Forest Service has proposed revisions to its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations that could eliminate meaningful public participation in the management of public lands – especially in regards to livestock grazing.
The Forest Service published their proposals in the Federal Register on June 13 with the explanation that, “The Agency’s goal is to complete project decision making in a timelier manner, improve or eliminate inefficient processes and steps, and, where appropriate, increase the scale of analysis and the number of activities in a single analysis and decision.”
The agency’s administration of the NEPA process could, undoubtedly, be made more efficient. Their proposal to implement Section 220.4(g) in their NEPA regulations could help by allowing some information in the documentation of their land management projects to be incorporated by reference. That’s a good idea, because I’ve read many Forest Service assessments of livestock management proposals for grazing allotments that included too many pages wasted on boilerplate information that should have been referenced. This proposal could allow generic information to be posted online, and regularly updated, to make it more easily referenced by everybody.
Another improvement would be their proposed Section 220.6 (b)(2)(ii) that defines the no-action alternative in the agency’s NEPA documents to be the “current condition.” Here in Arizona, the Forest’s have been deceptively calling the no-grazing alternative the no-action alternative. This practice presents a false choice, between just their proposed action and the no-grazing option. And it obscures direct comparisons with their proposed action and the existing grazing management situation.
But one of the Forest Service’s proposed NEPA revisions could lead to disastrous decisions in the management of livestock grazing on National Forests across the West.
In Section 220.4 (d)(2) of their proposed changes it states that scoping will be left to the discretion of the local responsible official for projects that are analyzed using environmental assessments (EAs). The scoping process is the public’s opportunity to raise issues by submitting written comments during the NEPA analysis of the agency’s land management proposals. Under the proposed regulations, the responsible agency official would still be required to conduct scoping for projects that are being analyzed with a full blown environmental impact statement (EIS). But the simpler EA is the NEPA analysis method used for most livestock grazing allotment management plans (AMPs). If the agency’s responsible official isn’t required to conduct scoping for EAs, there’s no telling how bad resultant the AMPs could become.
Ranching spokespersons often like to claim that ranchers know the land best and would never harm it because they profit from its health. The facts, however, show otherwise – particularly with riparian areas. Managing the land to maximize livestock production is not the same thing as managing the land for overall ecological health. Public scoping of EAs is a must to ensure that the Forest Service’s livestock management plans are in the public’s interest, and not just the rancher’s. Furthermore, without scoping the public cannot file an objection (appeal) of a bad project decision, and the only available response is a lawsuit in federal court.
It’s no accident that the Trump administration is trying to implement this significant regulatory change. The deadline for submission of written comments on the proposed Forest Service NEPA changes is August 12, 2019. Comments may be submitted online.