Forest Service Proposes Streamlining Environmental Review Procedures
Changes needed to clarify permitting process
In recently submitted comments, Public Land Solutions (PLS) offered several suggestions on the United States Forest Service’s (USFS) advance notice of proposed rulemaking seeking public input on its proposal to revise its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) procedures with the goal of increasing efficiency of environmental analysis.
In its comments, PLS highlights several key areas where the USFS commercial use permitting process could be improved, particularly in regards to uses by the outfitter-guide community. Some small adjustments to the permitting system would relieve unnecessary burdens on outfitters; however, noted PLS, environmental review is an essential component of public land planning, so any changes to NEPA regulations should be carefully considered.
The NEPA analysis for outfitter-guide permitting as it currently stands, for example, is unnecessarily complex. In 2016, then USFS Chief Tom Tidwell issued guidance on the modernization of the recreation special use permit system. In this guidance, Chief Tidwell urged USFS staff to be flexible when applying NEPA, and to use more categorical exclusions especially when renewing and changing existing permits where such changes are only administrative and don’t significantly increase public use. The Chief’s guidance offers an opportunity to streamline the permitting process while still maintaining the necessary safeguards required by NEPA.
In addition to streamlining the NEPA analysis process, there are clarifications that could be made to existing categorical exclusions that the USFS has historically used to grant outfitter-guide permits. As it stands, the categorical exclusions are narrow and only allow the agency to grant permits in a few rare situations. The agency should clarify the existing exclusions, and perhaps consider adding a new one that would give the agency the flexibility to issue new permits of longer duration and allow existing permittees to receive service day increases where there are no concerns about carrying capacity and conduct new similar uses. These minor adjustments to the permitting process will help commercial outfitter-guide businesses prosper, while still ensuring NEPA remains in place.
The public comment period for this rule change ended on February 2nd; the agency will now be reviewing comments and developing a new proposed rule. Read PLS’ full comment letter here.