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Fire Chronicle #15  Laura McCarthy, Forest Trust
 Jan 10, 2003 08:30 PST 
FIRE CHRONICLE: Stories of the National Fire Plan
Number 15
January 9, 2003


Just before the Christmas holiday the Departments of Agriculture and
Interior published a notice that they are seeking comments on a proposal
to streamline the review of hazardous fuel reduction treatments under
the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The agencies propose to
treat most hazardous fuel reduction activities as categorical exclusions
under NEPA. This action would not exempt the treatments from
environmental review. Rather, the proposal would allow some projects to
be implemented with a minimal amount of documentation. If the use of
categorical exclusions is done in an environmentally responsible manner,
rural communities that engage in forest work could benefit and
communities at high risk of wildfire could be protected more quickly.

The public comment period on the proposed categorical exclusion closes
next week, on January 15, 2003. What follows is a short explanation of
what categorical exclusion means, a summary of the proposed hazardous
fuel reduction categorical exclusion, an example of a project that might
have benefited from this proposal, and suggestions about how to
strengthen the proposal.

What is a Categorical Exclusion?

NEPA and its accompanying Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)
regulations (40 CFR 1500) require that federal agencies establish
specific criteria for three levels of documentation about decisions.
Projects that are expected to have a significant environmental effect
are documented in environmental impact statements. Projects that are not
expected to affect the environment significantly are documented in
environmental assessments. Finally, some types of decisions are
categorically determined to have no significant impacts and projects of
these types are routinely implemented with only a small amount of

Lists of the types of activities that may be categorically excluded are
maintained by the department secretaries and the heads of agencies. One
well-known example from the Forest Service is the categorical exclusion
of live-tree timber sales under 250,000 board feet. This exclusion was
used until the mid-1990s, when it was challenged in court and determined
that scientific studies showed that significant effects might be
expected from these small timber sales.

What New Categorical Exclusion is Proposed?

The Departments of Agriculture and Interior now propose to categorically
exclude hazardous fuel reduction treatment, defined as “manipulation,
including combustion or removal of fuels, to reduce the likelihood of
ignition and/or to lessen potential damage to the ecosystem from intense
wildfire and to create conditions where firefighters can safely and
effectively control wildfires.” Hazardous fuels are defined as
“combustible vegetation (live or dead), such as grass, leaves, ground
litter, plants, shrubs, and trees, that contribute to the threat of
ignition and high fire intensity and/or high rate of spread.” This
definition says that the exclusion only applies to hazardous fuel
reduction treatments that do not use herbicides or pesticides and that
do not require the construction of new permanent roads or other

The CEQ regulations for implementing NEPA require that the agencies make
exceptions to categorical exclusions in extraordinary circumstances, and
they require that the agencies define the circumstances. An
extraordinary circumstance automatically triggers an environmental
assessment or impact statement. For the proposed hazardous fuel
reduction exclusion, the trigger situations would be those where the
proposed action would impact:
- federally listed threatened or endangered species or their designated
critical habitat;
- wilderness areas or wilderness study areas;
- inventoried roadless areas;
- wetlands; and
- archeological or historical sites.

In addition to these specified limits, activities that are categorically
excluded would still need to be consistent with the applicable land and
resource management plan and other environmental laws. For example,
categorically excluded actions would need to follow the standards and
guidelines in Forest Plans, such as buffering riparian areas and timing
treatments to avoid the nesting period of species of concern. Federal
laws would also need to be followed, so a prescribed burn that might
exceed air quality standards could not be categorically excluded.
Finally, categorically excluded activities would still undergo the
appropriate level of consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service for threatened and
endangered species.

Finally, the notice states that the proposed categorical exclusion could
only be used for “projects identified in a manner consistent with the
collaborative framework in the 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy
Implementation Plan.” The implementation plan was created by federal,
state, tribal, and local government, as well as non-governmental
representatives, as a Congressional requirement of the National Fire
Plan. The intent of the new proposal is to limit the use of the
categorical exclusion to projects that contribute to the goals of the
implementation plan. However, given the lack of specificity in the
implementation plan, determining project alignment with its goals could
be difficult.

Rationale for the Proposal

The rationale provided for the proposed categorical exclusion is that
few hazardous fuel reduction treatments have significant environmental
effects. The notice states that the agencies reviewed the level of NEPA
documentation for over 3,000 hazardous fuel reduction and wildfire
rehabilitation projects from 1998-2002. The agencies found that “over
half were documented with environmental assessments, less than 50 were
documented with environmental impact statements, and the remainder were
categorically excluded.” Of the 50 that were documented with
environmental impact statements, only 12 had predictions of significant
effects, and all 12 had extraordinary circumstances that would have
prohibited the use of the proposed new exclusions. The agencies
concluded that this class of activity could therefore be safely
categorically excluded.

Santa Fe Watershed Example

The Santa Fe Watershed in New Mexico is considered by Senator Pete
Domenici (NM) to be the nation’s number one priority for hazardous fuel
reduction. The 17,000-acre watershed is directly adjacent to the city of
Santa Fe, with a population of 60,000, the state capitol, and many
state, county and city offices. More than half of the upper watershed is
in the Pecos Wilderness Area, and the remaining 7,000 acres are awaiting
hazardous fuel reduction treatment. The Forest Service spent five years
preparing an environmental impact statement that found no significant
effect. An administrative appeal was filed but the decision to implement
was upheld. Five years later, less than 1% of the treatment planned for
the Santa Fe watershed has been completed.

Forest planners briefly considered using categorical exclusions to treat
small areas of the watershed early in the planning process, but decided
against it in favor of an environmental impact statement to address the
full 7,000 acres they wished to treat. The advantage of using the
categorical exclusions, at that point, would have been to create
strategic fuel breaks and defensible space zones in the lower watershed
near the city. Most of the research on fuel reduction treatments in
ponderosa pine forests has been conducted in other southwestern mountain
ranges, and these early treatments could have been used to lay a
foundation for adaptive management of the entire watershed over as
information was gathered from the treated sites.

It is not clear whether the proposed categorical exclusion would have
helped the Santa Fe Watershed situation, had it been in place. The
entire watershed treatment might have been implemented under the
categorical exclusion, but in that case, input from regional ecologists
would probably not have been gathered and city residents would have had
fewer opportunities to engage in the planning.

Strengthening the Proposal

The proposed hazardous fuel reduction categorical exclusion is part of
the Bush Administration’s Healthy Forest Initiative. The proposal is
viewed by some as a tool to give the timber industry easier access to
federal timber and, in particular, to large trees and to forest types
that do not contribute to the nation’s wildfire problem. The timing of
the federal register notice during the Christmas holiday reinforces the
perception that the proposed categorical exclusion would lead to
“lawless logging.” The public controversy centers around three issues:
(1) using categorical exclusions for fuel reduction projects that result
in sales of commercial timber, (2) using categorical exclusions to treat
large wildland forest areas, and (3) using categorical exclusions that
the public cannot appeal. A few changes to address these controversies
would greatly strengthen the political appeal of the proposal.

Commercial timber is barely mentioned in the federal register notice. In
the summary, the notice says the hazardous fuel reduction categorical
exclusion will not apply to “timber sales that do not have hazardous
fuels reduction as their primary purpose.” Later on, the notice
acknowledges that the “thinning of trees (commercial or pre-commercial)”
is considered to be a hazardous fuel reduction activity. Finally, the
notice says that “products generated by use of mechanical methods under
the proposed hazardous fuel reduction categorical exclusion” will be
sold or disposed of according to the existing agency procedures. With
the exception of National Park Service lands, the new categorical
exclusion could be used to implement projects that use commercial timber
sales to implement a hazardous fuel reduction goal with little public
review. Scientists agree that preserving large, fire resistant trees is
important to reestablish natural fire regimes, thus the concern that
commercial sales could allow large trees to be cut. This factor could be
addressed in several different ways, for example, by limiting the amount
of commercial timber that can be sold under a categorical exclusion, or
by establishing a diameter limit for the size of tree that can be cut.

The federal register notice does not address the size of treatment areas
and it makes an implicit assumption that size is not a factor in whether
a hazardous fuel reduction treatment area has a significant effect on
the environment. However, nearly all of the scientific research on fuel
reduction treatments is at a small scale—usually tens or hundreds of
acres. Researchers have not yet completed large scale studies of the
cumulative effects of reducing forest densities through mechanical
treatments. Therefore, a prudent approach would be to limit the size of
mechanical treatment areas to the scale of the best available research.
For example, categorical exclusions might be limited to projects that
use mechanical treatments on up to 250 contiguous acres.

The agencies can complete the environmental review of projects that are
categorically excluded faster than projects requiring environmental
assessments, and the decisions made under a categorical exclusion cannot
be appealed by the public. However, the agencies would still be required
to hold a scoping period to notify the public of the proposed hazardous
fuel reduction treatment. The proposed categorical exclusion would give
the public strong incentive to make their views known during the scoping
period. If the public responded to the proposed action with strong,
negative feedback, the opposition should be considered an extraordinary
circumstance (see previous discussion) that would trigger an
environmental assessment. The public response could be measured as a
percentage of the annual average number of comments in the previous
calendar year. This addition to the list of extraordinary circumstance
would reassure the public that it will not be excluded from forest
management decisions.


The proposed categorical exclusion for hazardous fuel treatments is the
first concrete action by the administration to remove procedural
barriers to abating the national wildfire threat. However, it proposes
changes to NEPA procedures that could allow the agencies to stray from
the intended purpose of expediting hazardous fuel reduction. A few key
changes to the proposal--adding to the list of extraordinary
circumstances and placing limits on ancillary activities such as
commercial timber harvest--would move the proposal closer to the
political center.

TO COMMENT on the proposed categorical exclusion send a letter or email
message to: Healthy Forests Initiative, USDA FS Content Analysis Team,
P.O. Box 221150, Salt Lake City, UT 84116 or healthy-@fs.fed.us.
The federal register notice can be found on the web at:

FIRE CHRONICLE is edited by the Forest Trust and written by Laura Falk
McCarthy, Forest Protection Program Director. The Forest Trust welcomes
your comments, stories, and observations about how the National Fire
Plan is being implemented (just send a reply message and it will go to
the list moderator). To subscribe to FIRE CHRONICLE go to
http://www.topica.com/lists/firechronicles/ or send an email message to

PAST ISSUES OF FIRE CHRONICLE can be downloaded from
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2. Wildland-Urban Interface Definition a Barrier to Accountability
3. Stewardship Blocks: Innovative Tool Brings Fire Plan Benefits into
4. Youth Training Needed for Fire Plan to Benefit Local Workforce
5. Grants Get National Fire Plan Money into Communities
6. Collaborative Forest Restoration Program Creates New Solution to
7. Permits Regulate Prescribed Burning On Private Land
8. Accountability Remains a Key Issue for National Fire Plan
9. National Partnership Advances Landscape-Scale Forest Restoration
10. Poor Communities Most Threatened By Wildfire
11. A New Model To Fire-Proof Forest Homes
12. Consensus Over Fuel Reduction Treatment Dissolves
13. Wildland Urban Interface Definition Needed For Effective Policy
14. Funding Gaps Prevent Completion Of Hazardous Fuel Reduction

COMMUNITY STEWARDSHIP COMMUNICATOR is an electronic bulletin that
provides information about the national Community Stewardship
Collaborative’s effort to find solutions to issues related to
large-scale watershed projects on the national forests and the National
Fire Plan. The bulletin is prepared by the Pinchot Institute for
Conservation and is available by contacting nra-@pinchot.org
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