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Forest Service Proposes Limited Rule for Road & Trail Reclamation
Today the Forest Service proposed a new rule in the Federal Register “streamlining” its environmental review for three types of restoration activities:
- restore the flow of waters into natural channels and floodplains by removing, replacing or modifying water control structures;
- restore lands and habitat to pre-disturbance conditions by removing debris and sediment conditions following natural or human-caused events; and
- restore, rehabilitate or stabilize lands occupied by non-National Forest System roads and trails to a more natural condition.
So long as there are no extraordinary circumstances involved, these kinds of projects would be authorized through a categorical exclusion (CE), which means a full environmental assessment or environmental impact statement is not required. While this continues the agency’s trend of reducing the amount of analysis it conducts to approve projects, which can certainly be problematic, these three new categorical exclusions should increase the number of restoration projects that improve water quality and fish passage, and remove user-created, off-road vehicle routes as well as other routes such as abandoned temporary roads and fire lines.
When the Dept. of Agriculture first announced plans to create a new categorical exclusion for road reclamation, we fully supported it as long as there was a project file to review and opportunity for public comment; this announcement assures that the public will be fully involved and impacts will be disclosed through scoping, a project file, and/or a decision memo. This is great news. If the review or comments demonstrate a project has extraordinary circumstances then an environmental assessment will likely be completed. For example, this may happen if removing a road negatively impacts threatened, endangered or sensitive species such as bull trout or Westslope cutthroat trout.
Unfortunately the proposed CE excludes those roads or trails that are part of the official transportation system. When thinking about all the efforts to rightsize the road system, the new CE is not helpful. By 2015 the Forest Service is supposed to have identified a minimum road system and decommissioning opportunities, but the proposed rule would not apply to these system roads. This means any project that decommissions a system road would have to be analyzed under an environmental assessment or impact statement. We believe that the extraordinary circumstance trigger under the CE regulations offers enough opportunity to determine if such in-depth analysis is necessary, and the proposed rule should be clarified to apply to system roads and trails.
It seems the main reason why the proposed rule only applies to non-system routes is due to the perceived level of controversy that may be associated with reclaiming a road. In the Federal Register the agency explains its rationale:
The Forest Service experience is that the majority of issues associated with road and trail decommissioning arise from the initial decision whether to close a road or trail to public use rather than from implementing individual restoration projects.
Federal Register Volume 77, Number 114 (Wednesday, June 13, 2012), p. 35324
This concern over public access is not a reason to omit system roads and trails from the CE since eventually every forest in the country will have a travel management plan that determines the level of motorized access for public use. Forests that have travel plan decisions in place and that have identified a minimum road system will have addressed access needs for recreation and resource management. If the Forest Service wishes to ensure the CE does not change previous access decisions, it can clarify this in the new rule rather than limiting its scope to only non-system routes. Therefore, decommissioning system roads and trails should be authorized under the new CE.