Bear Creek and the NEPA Process

Bear Creek and the NEPA Process

August 27, 2015 by Jennifer Peterson

If you've been following the local news lately, you've likely heard/read about the greenback cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii stomais) residing in the Bear Creek Watershed as well as reference to what is known as the "NEPA process." To some, these terms are clear as mud, but to others, they raise additional confusion as to what will become of the trout, the watershed, and recreational use/access in the watershed when it's all said and done. If you're on the confused side, hopefully this blog post will help answer any lingering questions you might have.

Some background...a few years ago, some biological sampling in the Bear Creek Watershed revealed that approximately 750 adult greenback cutthroat trout residing in Bear Creek were the sole remaining genetically pure population of the fish species. The greenback cutthroat trout is Colorado's state fish. The population is currently listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. This finding set forth a multi-year process of additional testing and sampling as well as initiation of the NEPA process by the U.S. Forest Service to guide future management decisions in the Bear Creek Watershed.

NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act. It was signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970 as the first major environmental law in the United States. Often referred to as the “Magna Carta” of environmental laws, NEPA established the nation’s major environmental policies. To implement these policies, NEPA requires that federal agencies complete one of three levels of analysis to evaluate the relevant environmental effects of a proposed federal project or management action.

These three levels include the preparation of a Categorical Exclusion (CatEx), an Environmental Assessment (EA) and applicable Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), or an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). A CatEx comprises a list of proposed actions determined to not individually or cumulatively impact the quality of the human environment. If the proposed action is not listed in a CatEx, an EA must be prepared. We’ll stop at the EA since that has the most relevance to the Bear Creek Watershed. However, if you’re looking to delve deeper into the topic, click here.

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The EA is a requirement of NEPA so that management decisions are better informed and so that citizens have an opportunity to be involved in decisions that potentially impact their well-being. An EA details the direct, indirect, and cumulative environmental impacts that would result from implementing a set of management actions. The outcomes of the EA determine whether implementing the proposed action would significantly affect the quality of the human environment, thereby requiring the preparation of an EIS.

To initiate the EA process, the U.S. Forest Service began the Bear Creek Watershed Restoration Project with the primary purpose being to develop and implement management actions that protect the watershed and the greenback cutthroat population, while allowing for compatible, appropriate, and sustainable recreational use. To maximize citizen involvement, the Bear Creek Roundtable was created. The group is comprised of land management agencies, special interest groups, advocacy groups, nonprofit organizations, recreationists, individual citizens, and others. RMFI has been an active member of this group since its inception.

After extensive analysis of the watershed, the U.S. Forest Service released the EA in May 2015. That document can be found here. After a public comment period, the U.S. Forest Service released their draft decision and FONSI on July 17, 2015, which detailed their selection of Alternative B, the Proposed Action for implementation, as well as their determination that an EIS was not warranted. That document can be found here.

In summary, Alternative B proposes implementing in-stream and upland restoration techniques to protect aquatic species and enhance riparian habitat and watershed health; conducting maintenance, reconstruction, and storm water drainage improvements on existing trails to minimize erosion risk and sediment production; building new trails and/or rerouting trails using proven trail construction standards and techniques; converting some non-system trails into National Forest System trails; closing and restoring all non-system routes within the watershed; and increasing education through installation of interpretive signage. In essence, this decision attempts to balance the needs of the fish with recreational use in the watershed. No decision is perfect. Current access and trails in the Bear Creek Watershed will change once the final decision notice is signed. However, the U.S. Forest Service should be commended for prioritizing public involvement throughout the entire process to ensure all voices were heard and had a seat at the table.   

At the time of writing, the final objection period is in process, which allows objections to the decision to be submitted by those who have previously submitted specific written comments regarding the proposed project. The objection period ends on September 4, 2015. If no objections are filed, the decision notice may be signed 5 business days after the close of the objection period. If objections are filed, the resolution process will begin immediately after the objection period and will continue for 45 days. The final decision notice may be signed after the resolution process is complete and the Reviewing Officer’s response is received. Implementation may begin immediately after the decision notice is signed.

At the last Bear Creek Roundtable meeting in mid-August, the U.S. Forest Service had received two objections. This alone necessitates the 45-day resolution process meaning implementation won’t likely begin until late fall 2015, at the earliest. RMFI has close partnerships with all land management agencies involved in the project, and will play a key role in project implementation once the final decision has been signed. Successful implementation will hinge on community volunteers and youth corps crews, so be on the lookout in the near future about how you can get involved in this important project!

To find links to all documents resulting from the U.S. Forest Service analysis and NEPA process, visit their website here.