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NEPA 101: Navigating the National Environmental Policy Act Process

June 17, 2020
Author: Nick Smith

This post appears courtesy of guest blogger Nick Smith, who is Executive Director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that is supported by individuals and businesses who are passionate about improving the health of our forests and the future of our rural, forested communities.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to undertake an assessment of the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. Though some use the NEPA process to stall or stop projects they don’t like, the process offers important opportunities for citizens to get involved, provide important feedback, and ultimately make a project better.

This brief guide provides an overview of the NEPA process and the terminology that is frequently used.

Online resources to learn about projects your local national forest is developing:
  • Look up the Schedule of Proposed Actions (SOPA) Reports for your local national forest. These reports:
    • Provide updates to ongoing projects including vegetation management projects.
    • Are updated quarterly.
    • Provide the initial correspondence to the public regarding projects that will eventually progress into the formal scoping phase.
    • Offers an opportunity to discuss projects with Forest Service staff.


Project Updates can be found on your local forest’s web site (see an example, here).
  • Projects online are organized by their NEPA “status”
    • ‘Developing Proposal’: pre-scoping
    • ‘Under Analysis’: scoping
    • ‘Analysis Completed’: Final EA/EIS—Draft Decision—Objection Period
  • There are three levels of analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. They include Categorical Exclusion (CE), Environmental Assessment (EA), and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). A CE is used when the agency has determined the project does not have significant impacts on the human environment.
  • Each phase has a time-frame for public comment. Typically, this time-frame is 30 days for an Environmental Assessment (EA) and scoping, and 45 days for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
  • The best way to stay current on project progression and be informed of key comment timelines is to get on the appropriate agency mailing lists.
  • Most every USFS District manages their mailing lists via email.


Help shape projects during the “Scoping Process.”
  • Scoping is the phase where input is most influential to a project’s design and development.
  • This is the phase where citizens have an opportunity to help shape projects.
  • Examples of appropriate scoping input include:
    • Requests to modify the project’s objectives, which are often referred to as the “Purpose & Need.”
    • Requests for alternative ways to meet the stated Purpose and Need
    • Requests to create desirable Project Design Features (PDFs) such as those that impact operating restrictions or road management.
    • Submitting relevant scientific literature
  • Any comment submitted will be part of the official “record”; meaning that even if the agency doesn’t incorporate a request into the project design, the commenter has the opportunity to ask the agency why it wasn’t.
  • Some Districts have started doing “pre-scoping.” Pre-scoping is not advertised through the traditional outlets outlined above and there is no formal solicitation for comments. This is a new practice and it is unclear how this phase is impacting project design.  The best way to stay informed of pre-scoping is to request involvement from the local District staff.


What you can do when a Draft EA or EIS is released.
  • By the time a Draft EA/EIS is developed there is little opportunity for the public to alter the substance of the project in a way that will increase the scope and intensity of what is proposed.
  • Commenting on Draft EA/EIS from an active forest management perspective primarily serves these functions:
    • Raising questions regarding the substance of the analysis.
    • Requesting modifications to project design features (PDFs)—timing restrictions, equipment requirements, etc.
    • Advocating for a particular alternative.
    • Providing input that will facilitate a formal objection.


The final NEPA steps are the Draft Decision, Objection, and Final Decision.
  • The Objection process is pre-decisional—meaning that the objection phase is the final opportunity for the public to influence the agency’s Final Decision. Despite the term “objection,” this stage is essentially a continuation of the public NEPA process.
  • Once a Final Decision is published there are no additional options under NEPA for changing the substance of the project.
  • In order to submit an Objection, you must have submitted timely, specific written comments during the public comment periods. Objections must be linked to specific comments or concerns.
  • Once Objections are received, the Forest Service will typically facilitate a “resolution meeting” with the objectors.
  • Discretion is given to each Forest Service Decision-Maker on the format and inclusiveness of those resolution meetings.


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