Agency or authority
The use of categorical exclusions (CE) allows the US Forest Service (USFS) to protect the environment more efficiently by reducing the resources spent analyzing proposals that do not have potentially significant environmental impacts, and focusing resources on proposals that do. The USFS establishes categorical exclusions based on, in part, its experience implementing similar actions, the experience of other agencies, and information provided by the public.
Categorical Exclusions Relevant to Aquatic, Riparian, and Wet Meadow Restoration
§ 220.6 Categorical exclusions.
(a) General. A proposed action may be categorically excluded from further analysis and documentation in an EIS or EA only if there are no extraordinary circumstances related to the proposed action and if:
(1) The proposed action is within one of the categories established by the Secretary at 7 CFR part 1b.3; or
(1) Resource conditions that should be considered in determining whether extraordinary circumstances related to a proposed action warrant further analysis and documentation in an EA or an EIS are:
(i) Federally listed threatened or endangered species or designated critical habitat, species proposed for Federal listing or proposed critical habitat, or Forest Service sensitive species;
(ii) Flood plains, wetlands, or municipal watersheds;
(iii) Congressionally designated areas, such as wilderness, wilderness study areas, or national recreation areas;
(iv) Inventoried roadless area or potential wilderness area;
(v) Research natural areas;
(vi) American Indians and Alaska Native religious or cultural sites; and
(vii) Archaeological sites, or historic properties or areas.
(2) The mere presence of one or more of these resource conditions does not preclude use of a categorical exclusion (CE). It is the existence of a cause-effect relationship between a proposed action and the potential effect on these resource conditions, and if such a relationship exists, the degree of the potential effect of a proposed action on these resource conditions that determines whether extraordinary circumstances exist.
USFS CE #7: Modification or maintenance of stream or lake aquatic habitat improvement structures using native materials or normal practices. Examples include, but are not limited to:
(i) Reconstructing a gabion with stone from a nearby source;
(ii) Adding brush to lake fish beds; and
(iii) Cleaning and resurfacing a fish ladder at a hydroelectric dam.
Note: This category is applicable when using native materials to restore hydrologic functionality of a meadow, particularly overland flow for improvement of habitat. (Keszey, Levi. 2018. Permitting and Compliance Guidance for Meadow Restoration Practitioners Version 1.0. Sierra Meadows Partnership Working Paper 3: PP 1- 42.)
USFS CE #18: Restoring wetlands, streams, riparian areas or other water bodies by removing, replacing, or modifying water control structures such as, but not limited to, dams, levees, dikes, ditches, culverts, pipes, drainage tiles, valves, gates, and fencing, to allow waters to flow into natural channels and floodplains and restore natural flow regimes to the extent practicable where valid existing rights or special use authorizations are not unilaterally altered or canceled. Examples include but are not limited to:
(i) Repairing an existing water control structure that is no longer functioning properly with minimal dredging, excavation, or placement of fill, and does not involve releasing hazardous substances;
(ii) Installing a newly-designed structure that replaces an existing culvert to improve aquatic organism passage and prevent resource and property damage where the road or trail maintenance level does not change;
(iii) Removing a culvert and installing a bridge to improve aquatic and/or terrestrial organism passage or prevent resource or property damage where the road or trail maintenance level does not change; and
(iv) Removing a small earthen and rock fill dam with a low hazard potential classification that is no longer needed.
USFS CE #19: Removing and/or relocating debris and sediment following disturbance events (such as floods, hurricanes, tornados, mechanical/engineering failures, etc.) to restore uplands, wetlands, or riparian systems to pre-disturbance conditions, to the extent practicable, such that site conditions will not impede or negatively alter natural processes. Examples include but are not limited to:
(i) Removing an unstable debris jam on a river following a flood event and relocating it back in the floodplain and stream channel to restore water flow and local bank stability;
(ii) Clean-up and removal of infrastructure flood debris, such as, benches, tables, outhouses, concrete, culverts, and asphalt following a hurricane from a stream reach and adjacent wetland area; and
(iii) Stabilizing stream banks and associated stabilization structures to reduce erosion through bioengineering techniques following a flood event, including the use of living and nonliving plant materials in combination with natural and synthetic support materials, such as rocks, riprap, geo-textiles, for slope stabilization, erosion reduction, and vegetative establishment and establishment of appropriate plant communities (bank shaping and planting, brush mattresses, log, root wad, and boulder stabilization methods).
USFS CE #20: Activities that restore, rehabilitate, or stabilize lands occupied by roads and trails, including unauthorized roads and trails and National Forest System roads and National Forest System trails, to a more natural condition that may include removing, replacing, or modifying drainage structures and ditches, reestablishing vegetation, reshaping natural contours and slopes, reestablishing drainage-ways, or other activities that would restore site productivity and reduce environmental impacts. Examples include but are not limited to:
(i) Decommissioning a road to a more natural state by restoring natural contours and removing construction fills, loosening compacted soils, revegetating the roadbed and removing ditches and culverts to reestablish natural drainage patterns;
(ii) Restoring a trail to a natural state by reestablishing natural drainage patterns, stabilizing slopes, reestablishing vegetation, and installing water bars; and
(iii) Installing boulders, logs, and berms on a road segment to promote naturally regenerated grass, shrub, and tree growth.
USFS CE #25: Forest and grassland management activities with a primary purpose of meeting restoration objectives or increasing resilience. Activities to improve ecosystem health, resilience, and other watershed and habitat conditions may not exceed 2,800 acres.
(i) Activities to meet restoration and resilience objectives may include, but are not limited to:
(A) Stream restoration, aquatic organism passage rehabilitation, or erosion control;
(B) Invasive species control and reestablishment of native species;
(C) Prescribed burning;
(E) Road and/or trail decommissioning (system and non-system);
(G) Vegetation thinning; and
(H) Timber harvesting.
(ii) The following requirements or limitations apply to this category:
(A) Projects shall be developed or refined through a collaborative process that includes multiple interested persons representing diverse interests;
(B) Vegetation thinning or timber harvesting activities shall be designed to achieve ecological restoration objectives, but shall not include salvage harvesting as defined in Agency policy; and
(C) Construction and reconstruction of permanent roads is limited to 0.5 miles. Construction of temporary roads is limited to 2.5 miles, and all temporary roads shall be decommissioned no later than 3 years after the date the project is completed. Projects may include repair and maintenance of NFS roads and trails to prevent or address resource impacts; repair and maintenance of NFS roads and trails is not subject to the above mileage limits.
National Forests throughout the United States, including California.
How to apply
Summary of USFS CE Process (Appendix A Figure 2):
1) Enter proposed project information into the Schedule of Proposed Actions (SOPA)
2) Conduct scoping analysis
3) Inform participants and the public of the results of scoping
4) Identify appropriate CE
5) Determine if extraordinary circumstances apply
6) Write and release decision memo
A Decision Memo is written by the Deciding Official within the lead agency and includes: title of the CE, reasons why CE is applicable, justification of no extraordinary circumstances, discussion of public involvement in process, consistency with Lead Agency management plans, implementation date and contacts. (Template at https://www.fs.fed.us/emc/nepa/nepa_templates/nepatempDM.htm)