US Forest Service Implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act: Fast, Variable, Rarely Litigated, and Declining

Forrest Fleischman, Cory Struthers, Gwen Arnold, Mike Dockry, Tyler Scott

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


This paper draws on systematic data from the US Forest Service's (USFS) Planning, Appeals and Litigation System to analyze how the agency conducts environmental impact assessments under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). We find that only 1.9 percent of the 33,976 USFS decisions between 2005 and 2018 were processed as Environmental Impact Statements, the most rigorous and time-consuming level of analysis, whereas 82.3 percent of projects fit categorical exclusions. The median time to complete a NEPA analysis was 131 days. The number of new projects has declined dramatically in this period, with the USFS now initiating less than half as many projects per year as it did prior to 2010. We find substantial variation between USFS units in the number of projects completed and time to completion, with some units completing projects in half the time of others. These findings point toward avenues for improving the agency's NEPA processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)403-418
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Forestry
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the National Science Foundation (grant #1829255) as well as USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, (McIntire– Stennis Project # 1013165 to FF). We are grateful to Judy Suing and Kelly Weber for helping us understand the PALS database. We received helpful comments on this manuscript from Hudson Kingston.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Author(s) 2020. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society of American Foresters. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail:


  • Environmental Impact Assessment
  • National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
  • National Forests
  • US Forest Service (USFS)


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