Issue in Focus
Jun 14 2019
Passed in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act forces all federal agencies to go through a complex environmental planning process before they can take almost any action.
Before the Environmental Protection Agency can issue a permit for a new factory, that factory has to go through the NEPA process.
Before the United States Department of Transportation can fund a highway, even a highway built by a state government, that highway has to go through the NEPA process.
And before the Forest Service can implement a plan to maintain Forest Service land, that land management plan has to go through the NEPA process.
Ideally, environmental planning is a wonderful tool. When a community decides to build a new development, they should absolutely study how the new buildings and roads will affect water runoff and air quality.
Unfortunately, the planning process mandated by NEPA creates certain choke points that activists can use to slow down federal projects, often grinding them to a halt. Even routine maintenance on federal land can qualify for the strictest form of NEPA review, the environmental impact statement, which takes an average of two years to complete.
NEPA delays are not the only reason that the Forest Service has $5.2 billion worth of maintenance backlogs on Forest Service land, but it is part of the problem.
Now under President Trump, the Forest Service is looking to streamline that process. They have issued a proposed regulation that would change how the Forest Service classifies certain projects under NEPA. So, for example, “restoration projects” - which include removing diseased trees and reducing overgrown areas - would now receive “categorical exemptions” that do not require a full environmental impact analysis.
NEPA allows categorical exclusions for certain activities that the agency has determined, from analysis and experience, do not have significant environmental impacts and therefore do not require extensive environmental analysis.
This is a common sense reform that will make Utahns safer by making it easier for the Forest Service to do much needed fire prevention maintenance on federal land. Ultimately, however, Congress will have to act to permanently reform this outdated process and I intend to be part of those efforts.