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The Forest Service's Policy Approaches to Addressing Climate Change and Considerations under the National Environmental Policy Act

Kassandra M Kometani


  • Discusses the forest Service’s broad policy approach to address climate change.
  • Addresses climate change considerations under the National Environmental Policy Act.
  • Comments on how the prevalence of climate change litigation is likely to increase and given the many NEPA reviews conducted by the Forest Service.
The Forest Service's Policy Approaches to Addressing Climate Change and Considerations under the National Environmental Policy Act
Inti St Clair via Getty Images

The U.S. Forest Service has been entrusted with maintaining the nation’s forest resources in the face of threats such as climate change. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) houses a Climate Change Program Office that is the primary coordinator of the USDA’s response to climate change, the Forest Service’s role in natural resource management leads to significant involvement in climate change–related activites. The overarching mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health of forests to meet the needs of present and future generations; staying on track to achieve this objective has required the agency to incorporate climate change considerations into its responsibilities in a manner beyond that of other USDA agencies.

The Forest Service’s Broad Policy Approach

The Forest Service emphasizes two main approaches to address climate change. First is adaptation, which is a form of risk management that aims to stem the serious effects of climate change on forest ecosystem resources like vegetation and hydrology. The Forest Service’s Office of Sustainability and Climate Change has identified certain adaptation strategies such as building resistance to climate-related stressors (droughts, wildfires, insects, etc.) and responding to shifting environmental conditions. The second approach is mitigation, which, in the context of natural resources, includes managing forests to sequester and store more carbon dioxide in order to decrease the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. Backing these broad approaches is the Forest Service’s commitment to engage in climate change research and collaborate with stakeholders to foster “climate-informed, sustainable land management.”

The Forest Service has published a number of documents outlining its climate change strategies and policy initiatives. For instance, in 2008 the agency published the Forest Service Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change, which laid out seven key goals to structure the agency’s priorities and resource allocations in addressing climate change. To implement the strategic framework, the Forest Service published the National Roadmap for Responding to Climate Change in 2011, which established short- and long-term actions to respond to climate change challenges in the National Forest System.

While the Forest Service has adhered to its commitment to conduct climate research and provide informational tools, a 2017 report from the USDA Office of the Inspector General found that the agency’s policies and practices for measuring actual progress toward achieving the strategic goals were insufficient. This may in part stem from the fact that forest managers must translate extremely broad approaches into on-the-ground actions and the Forest Service does not yet have comprehensive indicators to track the specific efforts undertaken to implement the climate change strategies.

Climate Change Considerations under the National Environmental Policy Act

As a federal agency, the Forest Service is required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to analyze the environmental effects of its proposed actions before making any decisions. The NEPA process includes scoping, public commenting opportunities, identifying issues, gathering data, applying science, and developing alternatives to the proposed actions. Climate change is relevant to an agency’s NEPA analysis since GHG emissions from an action can contribute to climate change and those emissions must be evaluated as part of an action’s environmental impact. Further, agencies must also analyze changing weather conditions spurred by climate change that might alter an action’s environmental effects. These considerations are crucial elements of a proper NEPA analysis, which is intended to reveal information about the climate-related risks of a particular action and what needs to be done to mitigate those risks.

For the Forest Service, there are multiple ways climate change can be evaluated in the NEPA process. One consideration is whether the effects of a proposed project will lead to an increase in GHG emissions and/or a decrease in the carbon sequestration potential of a forest. For example, hazardous fuel reduction projects may result in short-term GHG emissions that alter the carbon cycle. It may also be necessary for the Forest Service to analyze whether the effects of an action will combine with climate change to significantly impact resources such as wildlife. The depth and scope of analysis will depend on the nature of the project, the intensity of the effects, and any scientific uncertainty or controversy.

The Forest Service published a guidance document in 2009 entitled Climate Change Considerations in Project Level NEPA Analysis wherein the agency discusses pre-NEPA analyses and encourages the consideration of climate change effects on natural resource management prior to initiating the NEPA process. The expectation is that doing so will increase efficiency and allow relevant parties “to integrate climate change considerations together with the Agency mission objectives.” Under NEPA, the Forest Service is required to consider the direct and indirect effects of an action, which can include the quantitative effects of projects on GHG missions and carbon cycle changes. The guidance document notes that the Forest Service does not yet have a generally accepted tool for analyzing all GHG emissions.

NEPA and Climate Change in the Courts

The court system has become a “key battleground” in the nation’s struggle for climate change solutions and the Forest Service has been a frequent party in the rise of climate change litigation over the last decade. In a study of 99 NEPA cases litigated between 1989 and 2017, the Forest Service had the second highest number of cases as a named federal defendant at 15, just behind the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at 17 cases. Of those cases, the Forest Service won 80 percent and BLM won 54 percent. Litigation against the Forest Service generally involves timber, wildlife, grazing, and planning project challenges. Many of the NEPA claims allege that the agency failed to adequately discuss GHG emissions or climate change in its environmental assessments (EAs) or environmental impact statements (EISs).

While the Forest Service enjoys a strong success rate in climate change NEPA litigation, the agency is less likely to receive deference for its determination if it ignores available science. For example, in High Country Advocates v. U.S. Forest Service, a Colorado district court rejected the Forest Service’s contention that it was impossible to disclose the foreseeable indirect effects of GHG emissions that would result from expanded mining operations on public lands since there was an available protocol to quantify the emissions. In contrast, the same court in Swomley v. Schroyer held that the Forest Service did not violate NEPA when it did not consider the foreseeable GHG emissions of a project since plaintiffs failed to show that the emissions would result in a cumulatively significant impact.

The prevalence of climate change litigation is likely to increase and given the many NEPA reviews conducted by the Forest Service, the agency is likely to be hauled into court over perceived deficiencies in its analyses at an even greater rate. One scholar notes how the Forest Service’s success in NEPA litigation may be attributed to its agency-wide adaptation policy, strategic plan, and research agenda for climate change. While the published policies may not be entirely comprehensive, they at least direct the agency and relevant parties as to how climate change should be incorporated into NEPA analyses and strengthen the agency’s overall position in a lawsuit.