All too often we hear about Forest Service projects being delayed because of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) compliance. Why is this?
Forest Service specialists spend a great deal of time doing painstaking work to ensure that all of the micro level details are measured and addressed before a project can move forward. This sounds good, right? Hydrologists studying water flows, soil scientists trying to understand the impacts of differing activities, botanists identifying sensitive plants, and wildlife biologists making sure all considerations are met for the species of animals that live or might live there……all of this seems like the right thing to do. In theory, it is. In reality, something else happens.
It takes years to compile all of this work. Even if Forest Service personnel or contractors are dedicating their time, it usually takes more than a year to get the requisite information together. That doesn’t consider the interruptions created by staff movements and the impact of fire season (different, yet crucial topic).
So, if it takes a while so what? Aren’t the forests important enough to take the time to get it right?
Under normal circumstances, it would seem logical to take our time to ensure that we are doing the right things when we manage forests. The approach sounds good, but it can have disastrous consequences.
In 2015 we saw a project that spent over two years in planning, that was prepped for bid in October, burn in August. Now, in the summer of 2016, the remaining unburned portions of the project still haven’t been offered for sale. The mill that was counting on this volume had to shut down in part because of this missing volume, but also because the fire season shut down the forests for about a total of 7 weeks. The small log mills in the area had a total of 7 weeks of log inventory. Something had to give and it did. One of the two mills was shut down for 6 months while the inventory replenished.
If we were able to have the NEPA efforts streamlined into one field season, the project would have been sold and operated the year before the fire. This would have created multiple positive outcomes. First, the mills would have has better inventory levels to weather the fire season disruption. Second, the fire would have been much smaller because much of that heavy fuel load would have been managed. The third and most important outcome is that we would still have green forests instead of charred remains of what was once a forest in line for thinning.
If we don’t change what we are doing and how we are conducting NEPA we will continue to see this outcome repeat itself over and over again. Unless significant changes are made to address the macro level problem we will fail to reach the pace and scale of forest treatments necessary to create meaningful change.
On the flip side, solutions are available. The benefits are great if we choose to make the necessary changes.
- Let’s honor our collaborative groups by funding their efforts. This will ensure that the projects are carried out in ways that not only meet economic needs but balance the needs of the community for healthy forests, improved recreation, and conservation.
- We need to allow dedicated third party contractors to carry out much of the scientific fact checking, so the work gets done promptly. Forest Service employees regularly have to attend training for firefighting and fire preparedness. They regularly transfer to improve their careers. All of these issues slow the process down. Having dedicated professional contractors that are committed to hitting deadlines, while still performing quality peer reviewed work will allow for needed work to done in one field season.
- We should also maintain a good set of records so when these areas are re-entered we just have to update a previous plan. There is no reason we need to do a complete NEPA analysis on land that has had it completed in the past.
- Focus on long-term plans that include returning to projects to treat areas that were not part of the original harvest units. All too often we see project areas that are 18,000 acres total with a harvest area of 3,200 acres. There are more that 3,200 acres in the project areas that need addressing, and over time those need for treatment increase. Including that as part of the original planning effort maks sense.
There are more things that need to be done than what I have outlined here. This problem is much akin to eating an elephant; as we look at the task it can be overwhelming, but the only way is one bite at a time.