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Highlights

The Forest Service manages over 192 million acres of land, in part through vegetation management projects such as thinning trees. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the Forest Service to prepare either an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS) before approving a project that may significantly affect the environment. The agency generally does not need to prepare such environmental analyses, however, if the project involves categories of activities that it previously found to have no significant environmental effects--activities known as a categorical exclusion. As of 2003, the Forest Service had one categorical exclusion--activities to improve timber stands or wildlife habitat. It has since added four new exclusions, but little is known about their use. GAO was asked to determine, for calendar years 2003 through 2005, (1) how many vegetation management projects the Forest Service approved, including those approved using categorical exclusions; (2) which categorical exclusions the agency used in approving projects; and (3) if field offices are not using categorical exclusions, why. To answer these objectives, GAO surveyed Forest Service officials from all of the 155 national forests. In commenting on a draft of this report, the Forest Service generally agreed with GAO's findings and observations.

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