BLM Can Waive Environmental Analysis for Millions of Acres

August 29, 2007

One of the BLM's first actions under new director James Caswell - confirmed Aug. 3, 2007, by the US Senate - was a final rule defining how the agency will implement portions of the National Environmental Policy Act. Press Contact: Matt Spangler, 202-452-5130; release. Federal Register notice, Aug. 14, 2007.

The new rule defines how the agency can use categorical exclusions to approve projects without conducting an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement. Some of the more prominent activities under the agency's jurisdiction are covered, such as grazing, logging, recreation, and oil, gas, and geothermal extraction.

The agency has been reviewing the rule since January 2006, and it received about 72,000 comments. Some critics said the new rules were still too stringent, and would sometimes unnecessarily require environmental analyses of some type. Others said the new rules would open the door to more environmental damage.

It remains to be seen exactly how the agency will implement the rule, which is now in effect. However, using some of the agency's own numbers, the Natural Resources Defense Council says that about 13,000 of the roughly 19,000 grazing permits that the agency issues may be granted a categorical exclusion as each comes up for renewal at some point during the next 10 years. In addition, the group is concerned about a new provision that allows the agency to say a permit applicant's land is healthy from a grazing impact perspective, without considering other land health influences such as drought or fire that might exacerbate grazing impacts.

A typical permit covers about 12,000-14,000 acres, and the permits that may receive no environmental review may total more than 100 million acres, of the 160 million or so acres now under permit. If a sizable number of permits are granted a categorical exclusion, this will be a major paradigm shift from the practice of the past three decades, says NRDC's Bobby McEnaney, 202-289-6868 (release).

For information on other recent grazing rule revisions, see the TipSheet of July 6, 2005.

In addition to grazing issues, McEnaney says that oil, gas, and geothermal industry vehicles exploring for new reserves can cause substantial land degradation, but are now eligible for a categorical exclusion. Exploration isn't a major activity right now, McEnaney acknowledges, since many areas suspected of containing these resources have already been identified. But he says exploration may ramp up soon as known deposits are depleted. For some photographs of energy development activities and impacts, see a Wilderness Society collection.

Road building projects for logging operations, and some logging operations themselves, are also now eligible for a categorical exclusion. McEnaney says hundreds of miles of new roads could be built without environmental reviews, as logging expands on a few million acres of the roughly 54 million acres of forested BLM lands.

It may be difficult to determine in the future how many projects are approved with a categorical exclusion, since BLM isn't required to notify the public when an exclusion is granted. And the public will have no input in determining whether an exclusion is warranted.

NRDC is considering suing over the new rules, but if and when it would do so is uncertain. The US Forest Service won a legal challenge to its 2003 adoption of categorical exclusion rules, according to an Aug. 21, 2007, press release from OMB Watch.