Bark Beetles and NEPA

UW’s Environment and Natural Resource (ENR) program’s Capstone Course is focused on an important culminating learning experience for seniors in the program. It requires each student to collaborate with the others in the class to write, jointly, an Environmental Assessment (EA) on a current, real-life, proposed federal action. This year’s topic for the EA is the removal of bark beetle-kill timber from the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming for biofuel reuse.

At mid-semester, students are now working within their teams, each of which has been assigned to write one of the chapters in the EA. Last week they began developing the chapter-specific conceptual models. This effort involves using existing data regarding the ecological structure of the topic-specific systems in which they are writing about within their designated team. Conceptual models are routinely used in developing real EAs and, for the students’ learning, are important to understanding the complexities of the linkages which define the relationships between a variety of human activities related to the question at hand – in this case, the environmental impacts that could result should beetle-kill trees be harvested for biofuel. Natural forces that put stress on the usual processes and linkages are also incorporated into the model. The conceptual model each team creates, in planning for their section for the EA, is intended to orient each team in their work over the next several weeks and provide a roadmap of sorts in which students can refer to as they begin the process of writing the EA.
While studying and addressing problems under the requirements of their EA document, the students must follow the Congressionally mandated environmental review process set out in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). NEPA is a landmark environmental law in the United States, enacted in 1969 as part of the growing environmental movement in the United States. One spur to that movement was Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. That book awakened many Americans to the importance of evaluating the potential environmental effects of activities the federal government might undertake – like the spraying of pesticides, which Carson highlighted – before authorizing those actions.

NEPA’s most significant provisions set up procedural requirements for all federal government agencies to prepare EAs and Environmental Impact Statements. These documents contain analyses of the environmental effects of proposed federal agency actions. The US Fish and Wildlife agency, in this case, is the agency that will apply the federal action with harvested trees for biofuel, and the students, in this case, can only begin writing the class EA, if this proposed action is likely to “significantly affect the quality of the human environment” (42 U.S.C. § 4331(b)).  An example of a recent federal EA is one completed by the Bureau of Land Management regarding Douglas-Fir bark beetle treatment and management on BLM lands and within the Sawtooth National Forest (Idaho). Although this is a very short example (current EAs are usually hundreds of pages in length), it is intended to show the scope of this regulatory document, and to show the types of tasks in which the students will be engaged in the coming months.

The ENR program at UW emphasizes interdisciplinary education and applied research. The interdisciplinary model, as carried out by the Haub School ENR, is based on addressing real-world problems such as the bark beetle epidemic. This model provides a foundation from which ENR students can orient themselves and their studies. The same is true for the conceptual models for the Capstone Course’s EA. The conceptual model acts as a mooring to orient students in writing the various chapters of the EA – I think of the model as acting like the mooring that tethers a group of boats to a pier. The students come from all kinds of disciplines – economics, biology, American Studies, for instance – because ENR is a dual-degree program, where students major in both ENR and another field. Prior to taking the Capstone Course, as part of first and second year courses under the ENR degree program, students will have received a good foundation and understanding of U.S. environmental policy and practices and will have completed some critical examination of historical and contemporary environmental issues. The Capstone Course, taken in their senior year, is designed to challenge them to apply those policies and practices to the task of writing the class EA. Providing students with this applied learning opportunity is intended to nearly mimic a real process that a managing agency like the US Forest Service would also go through for a proposal such as harvesting beetle-kill trees for biofuel. However, for example, there is not a public comment or scoping process associated with the students’ writing, as with real NEPA processes. Ultimately, the goal of the class, within the academic year, is to write a full-length, legally defensible document. Although the class EA will not be published as a formal document or for dissemination to managers and others, as is normally the case, the standards to which the students are held are both academically and scientifically rigorous.

Bottom line with this discussion, federal NEPA laws are important to ensure that before land management agencies pursue their work on public lands, that in any way alters the landscape, that all environmental impacts have been considered with current policies and “best management practices,” and that they are consistent with the health of the environment and the benefits people receive from these natural systems, called “ecosystem services.” What humans gain from ecosystems, in terms of human health and well-being, is an important discussion. I’ll save that topic for another blog about the Capstone Class’ experiences addressing the bark beetle epidemic.

Beetle Blog readers may be interested in more background information on beetles, and an example of an online tool that agencies use to assess “best management practices” (in this case, in energy development).

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