In January 2001, the United States Forest Service (Forest Service) issued an environmental impact statement (EIS) recommending amendments to the Forest Plans in the Sierras Madre Mountains (2001 EIS) to conserve and repair the riparian and amphibian habitat. By November 2001, the Forest Service reviewed the 2001 EIS and its proposed alternatives, and made several substantial changes, issuing a new EIS (2004 EIS) and adopting a new alternative (2004 Framework). The Pacific Rivers Council brought suit in Pacific Rivers Council v. United States Forest Service, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 12553, claiming that the Forest Service’s 2004 EIS violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) by failing to take the requisite “hard look” at the environmental effects of the 2004 Framework on fish and amphibians. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the 2004 EIS was deficient in its analysis on fish, however, sufficient in its analysis on amphibians.
With respect to the analysis of environmental consequences on fish, the Forest Service argued that the 2004 Framework was nothing more than an amendment to the Forest Plans, and thus it was not reasonably possible to provide an analysis of the environmental consequences on individual fish species. The Forest Service also claimed that the 2004 EIS satisfied the required “hard look” by incorporating the biological assessments (BA) by reference. The court disagreed with both arguments.
Responding to the Forest Service’s first argument, the court held that, based on the detailed analysis of the environmental effects on individual fish species in the 2001 EIS, along with the detailed analysis of environmental effects on individual species of mammals, birds, and amphibians in the 2004 EIS, a detailed analysis of fish in the 2004 EIS was in fact “reasonably possible.” The court explained that while the 2004 EIS was not required to have the same level of detail as the 2001 EIS, its complete lack of analysis, along with the absence of any explanation as to why no analysis was even included, was a violation of NEPA.
The court disagreed with the Forest Service’s second argument for three reasons. First, the court explained that depending on the nature of the information and its importance, it should either be in the text of the EIS, in an appendix to the EIS, or incorporated by reference. If the BAs were to serve as the requisite analysis, as argued by the Forest Service, then they should not have simply been referenced. Nor should they be included as an appendix. Based on their importance, the BAs should have been described and analyzed in the text. Next, the court held that the BAs could not even serve as the requisite “hard look” because there was no analysis of the degree or the manner by which the 2004 Framework may have affected the fish. Lastly, the court found that the BAs applied only to one group of fish species, as opposed to the three groups analyzed in the 2001 EIS. Based on those three findings, the court held that the 2004 EIS’s analysis of environmental consequences on fish was inadequate and in violation of NEPA.
With respect to amphibians, the court found the Forest Service’s 2004 EIS sufficient under NEPA. The 2004 EIS contained an extensive analysis of individual amphibians, identified changes between the 2001 and 2004 Frameworks that were likely to affect the species, and discussed mitigation strategies to minimize the environmental consequences of the 2004 Framework on amphibians. The court held that, since the Forest Service’s 2004 Framework stated that additional NEPA analysis would occur at the project-level, the current level of analysis was sufficient since site-specific projects are not yet at issue. Therefore, the court found the 2004 EIS’s analysis of environmental impacts on amphibians sufficient under NEPA.
The importance of information determines where the information must be presented in an EIS. The most important information must be analyzed in the text, less important information can be put in the appendix, and the least important information need only be referenced. Also, if an amendment to an alternative is significant, a new EIS must be prepared to take the requisite “hard look” at environmental consequences. A “hard look” involves considering all foreseeable direct and indirect impacts, as well as discussing the adverse impacts that do not improperly minimize negative side effects.
Written By: Tina Thomas, Amy Higuera and Holly McMannes (law clerk)
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