U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior; Bureau of Land Management, Interior; National Park Service, Interior; Bureau of Indian Affairs, Interior; Forest Service, Agriculture; National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Commerce.
As part of the President's Healthy Forests Initiative announced in August 2002, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (singly or jointly, Service), in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service (FS) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and National Park Service (NPS), are proposing joint counterpart regulations for consultation under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.) (ESA) to streamline consultation on proposed projects that support the National Fire Plan (NFP), an interagency strategy approved in 2000 to reduce risks of catastrophic wildland fires and restore fire-adapted ecosystems. These counterpart regulations, authorized in general at 50 CFR 402.04, will provide an optional alternative to the existing section 7 consultation process described in 50 CFR part 402, subparts A and B. The counterpart regulations complement the general consultation regulations in part 402 by providing an alternative process for completing section 7 consultation for agency projects that authorize, fund, or carry out actions that support the NFP. The alternative consultation process contained in these proposed counterpart regulations will eliminate the need to conduct informal consultation and eliminate the requirement to obtain written concurrence from the Service for those NFP actions that the Action Agency determines are “not likely to adversely affect” (NLAA) any listed species or designated critical habitat.
Comments on this proposal must be received by August 4, 2003, to be considered in the final decision on this proposal.
Comments or materials concerning the proposed rule should be sent to the Chief, Division of Consultation, Habitat Conservation Planning, Recovery and State Grants, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 North Fairfax Drive, Room 420, Arlington, Virginia 22203. Comments can also be accepted if submitted via e-mail to email@example.com. Comments and materials received in conjunction with this rulemaking will be available for inspection, by appointment, during normal business hours at the above address.
The FWS has agreed to take responsibility for receipt of public comments and will share all comments it receives with NMFS and the Action Agencies. All the agencies will work together to compile, analyze, and respond to public comments.Start Further Info
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:
Patrick Leonard, Chief, Division of Consultation, Habitat Conservation Planning, Recovery and State Grants, at the above address (Telephone 703/358-2171, Facsimile 703/358-1735) or Phil Williams, Chief, Endangered Species Division, NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910 (301/713-1401; facsimile 301/713-0376).End Further Info End Preamble Start Supplemental Information
Implementation of National Fire Plan
In response to several years of catastrophic wildland fires throughout the United States culminating in the particularly severe fire season in 2000, when over 6.5 million acres of wildland areas burned, President Clinton directed the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to develop a report outlining a new approach to managing wildland fires and restoring fire-adapted ecosystems. The report, entitled Managing the Impact of Wildfires on Communities and the Environment, was issued September 8, 2000. This report set forth ways to reduce the impacts of fires on rural communities, a short-term plan for rehabilitation of fire-damaged ecosystems, and ways to limit the introduction of invasive species and address natural restoration processes. The report, and the accompanying budget requests, strategies, plans, and direction, have become known as the NFP. The NFP is intended to reduce risk to communities and natural resources from wildland fires through rehabilitation, restoration and maintenance of fire-adapted ecosystems, and by the reduction of accumulated fuels or highly combustible fuels on forests, woodlands, grasslands, and rangelands.
In August 2002, during another severe wildland fire season in which over 7.1 million acres of wildlands burned, President Bush announced the Healthy Forests Initiative. The initiative was intended to accelerate implementation of the fuels reduction and ecosystem restoration goals of the NFP in order to minimize the damage caused by catastrophic wildfires by reducing unnecessary regulatory obstacles that have at times delayed and frustrated active land management activities. Because of nearly a century of policies to exclude fire from performing its historical role in shaping plant communities, fires in our public forests and rangelands now threaten people, communities, and natural resources in ways never before seen in our Nation's history.
Many of the Nation's forests and rangelands have become unnaturally dense as a result of past fire suppression policies. Today's forests contain previously unrecorded levels of fuels, while highly flammable invasive species now pervade many rangelands. As a result, ecosystem health has suffered significantly across much of the Nation. When coupled with seasonal droughts, these unhealthy forests and rangelands, overloaded with fuels, are vulnerable to unnaturally severe wildland fires. The geographic scope of the problem is enormous, with estimates approaching 200 million acres of forest and rangeland at risk of catastrophic fire. The problem has been building across the landscape for decades. Its sheer size makes it impossible to treat all the acres needing attention in a few years or even within the next decade.
In 2002 alone, the Nation experienced over 88,000 wildland fires that cost the Federal government $1.6 billion to suppress. Many of these wildfires significantly impacted threatened or endangered species. The Biscuit Fire burned an area of 499,570 acres in Oregon and California that included 49 nest sites and 50,000 acres of designated critical habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl and 14 nesting areas and 96,000 acres of designated critical habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet. The estimated fire suppression cost was $134,924,847. The Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona, the largest fire in the State's post-settlement Start Printed Page 33807history, burned through 462,614 acres, including 20 nesting areas for the threatened Mexican spotted owl. Unless fuel loads can be reduced on the thousands of acres classified at high risk of catastrophic wildfires, more adverse effects like those of the 2002 fire season are certain to occur.
The long-term strategy for the NFP is to correct problems associated with the disruption of natural fire cycles as a result of fire suppression policy or fire-prone non-native invasive species and minimize risks to public safety and private property due to the increase in amount and complexity of the urban/wildland interface. The NFP calls for a substantial increase in the number of acres treated annually to reduce unnaturally high fuel levels, which will decrease the risks to communities and to the environment caused by unplanned and unwanted wildland fire. These types of preventative actions will help ensure public safety and fulfill the goals of the President's Healthy Forests Initiative.
The FS, BIA, BLM, and NPS, as Federal land management agencies, play an important role in implementing actions under the NFP that will reduce the potential risks of catastrophic wildland fire. The FWS also develops and carries out actions in support of the NFP on National Wildlife Refuges or National Fish Hatcheries. These five agencies constitute the Action Agencies who may use the counterpart regulations proposed herein. The types of projects being conducted by these agencies under the NFP include prescribed fire (including naturally occurring wildland fires managed to benefit resources), mechanical fuels treatments (thinning and removal of fuels to prescribed objectives), emergency stabilization, burned area rehabilitation, road maintenance and operation activities, ecosystem restoration, and culvert replacement actions. Prompt implementation of these types of actions will substantially improve the condition of the Nation's forests and rangelands and substantially diminish potential losses of human lives and property caused by wildland fires. The Service and the Action Agencies are proposing these counterpart regulations to accelerate the rate at which these type of activities can be implemented such that the likelihood of catastrophic wildland fires is reduced.
Federal Fuels Treatment Activities
Each of the Action Agencies has substantial experience in planning and implementing projects that further the goals of reducing risks associated with wildland fires, while improving the condition of our public lands and wildlife habitat. The FS works collaboratively with its partners to design and implement projects to meet a variety of land and resource management objectives, including projects to improve habitat for wildlife and fish species. Through several hundred rehabilitation, restoration and hazardous fuels reduction projects under the NFP, the FS treats over 2 million acres each year to benefit natural resources, people, and communities. All of these projects have long-term multiple resource benefits, and several have short-term wildlife benefits as well. On the Winema and Fremont National Forests in Oregon, a thousand acres of forest were thinned and underburned to protect stands and large trees from wildfire, and to increase the longevity of those trees used by bald eagles for nesting and roosting. On the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, after habitat loss due to the Cerro Grande Fire, ground cover in the form of large fallen woody material has been restored to benefit the Jemez Mountain salamander. Habitat that had been damaged by post-wildland fire debris flows has been restored to reduce erosion and benefit Yellowstone cutthroat trout on the Custer National Forest in Montana. On the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia, prescribed fire is used every 3 years on Mt. Rogers to maintain the grassy bald area in a grass-forb stage and prevent woody vegetation from becoming established that would out compete rare plant species. Similarly, on the National Forests in Mississippi, prescribed burning reduces woody vegetation and fuels, encourages fire-dependent perennials, and restores and expands remnants of native prairie.
The BIA has planned many beneficial projects under the NFP that are designed to reduce wildland fire risk on Indian lands and to increase public safety around tribal and non-tribal communities. For example, one project will utilize both mechanical treatments and prescribed fire in lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce forests to reduce fuel loadings and protect residents and residences around the Blackfeet Indian Reservation communities of East Glacier, Little Badger, Babb, St. Mary, Heart Butte, and Kiowa, in northwestern Montana. A second project would also utilize mechanical treatments and prescribed fire to reduce fuel loadings in Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine, and grass fuel types that pose a high level of risk to the residents around the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation communities of Box Elder Village, Box Elder Creek, Rocky Boy Townsite, Duck Creek, and Parker Canyon, in Central Montana. A third project would reduce fuels in about 1,300 acres of pine, juniper, oak, and grasses, by combining prescribed fire with mechanical fuels treatment techniques on Zuni Tribal forest and woodland resources in New Mexico. This project would create fuel breaks in large contiguous fuels that are at high risk for catastrophic wildfires. Finally, a fourth project will stabilize and rehabilitate 276,000 acres of White Mountain Apache Tribal lands severely damaged in the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. This project will reduce the potential threats to human life and property in surrounding communities, along with threats to cultural resources, water quantity and quality, and soil productivity.
Across the Nation, NPS is implementing numerous projects to support the goals of the NFP. Park superintendents use prescribed fire (including wildland fire), mechanical fuels treatments, and invasive species control to restore or maintain natural ecosystems, to mitigate the effects of past fire suppression policies, and to protect communities from catastrophic wildfires. NPS fire management and restoration efforts generally focus on restoring ecosystem processes rather than on the management of specific species. However, these projects provide important long-term habitat benefits to a variety of threatened or endangered species. For example, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is completing a 1,034-acre yellow pine restoration burn, the largest prescribed burn in the Park's history. The central purpose of the Park's use of fire is to replicate as nearly as possible the role that naturally occurring fires played in shaping and maintaining the Park's biologically diverse ecosystems, while also minimizing the risk of future wildfires. At Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, the use of prescribed fire is intended to restore and maintain grassland/prairie habitats in a healthy condition. The operation was an interagency effort between the FS and the NPS. Similarly, Gulf Islands National Seashore has conducted prescribed burns for habitat restoration and to reduce hazardous fuels. These burns both restore key vegetative communities and provide habitat for relocated gopher tortoises. Other projects have improved habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers at Big Thicket National Preserve and bald eagles at Lavabeds National Monument. All of these fuels treatment projects will Start Printed Page 33808enhance public safety for the communities around the Parks.
The BLM is proceeding with many NFP projects to restore dense pinyon pine and juniper forests and woodlands, nearly devoid of understory shrubs, grasses, and forbs, to a more natural savannah, or open woodland conditions. In the Farmington Field Office, New Mexico, the Pump Mesa project is a multiple phase project to open up the pinyon pine and juniper forest canopy by thinning, wood removal, and prescribed burning, to make space, sunlight, water, and nutrients available for the manual seeding of native understory species that were formerly present on the site. Densities of trees in the pinyon pine systems have increased to the point that large proportions of these woodlands have become highly combustible, supporting crown fires that can produce catastrophic habitat loss for wildlife and high risk to nearby communities. In the Richfield Field Office, the Praetor Slope Fuel Reduction project will mechanically displace patches of juniper and sagebrush to reduce the risk created by large, dense contiguous areas of fuel, while creating valuable deer and elk range, complete with islands and feathered woodlands that provide necessary animal cover. In the Central Montana Fire Management Zone, a number of small and moderate-sized prescribed burns, such as in Cow Creek, Little Bull Whacker, and Fergus Triangle, have been completed to increase wildlife habitat diversity, reduce fuel loads, and increase forage for both livestock and wildlife.
Endangered Species Act Section 7 Consultation
Section 7(a)(2) of the ESA requires that each Federal agency shall, in consultation with and with the assistance of the Service, insure that any action it authorizes, funds, or carries out is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat. Section 7(b) of the ESA describes the consultation process, which is further developed in regulations at 50 CFR part 402.
The existing ESA section 7 regulations require an action agency to complete formal consultation with the Service on any proposed action that may affect a listed species or designated critical habitat, unless following either a biological assessment or informal consultation with the Service, the action agency makes a determination that a proposed action is “not likely to adversely affect” any listed species or designated critical habitat and obtains written concurrence from the Service for the NLAA determination. The alternative consultation process contained in these proposed counterpart regulations will allow the Service to provide training, oversight, and monitoring to an Action Agency through an alternative consultation agreement (ACA) that enables the Action Agency to make an NLAA determination for a project implementing the NFP without informal consultation or written concurrence from the Service.
Using the existing consultation process, the Action Agencies have consulted with the Service on many thousands of proposed actions that ultimately received written concurrence from the Service for NLAA determinations. Those projects had only insignificant or beneficial effects on listed species or posed a discountable risk of adverse effects. The concurrence process for such projects has diverted some of the consultation resources of the Service from projects in greater need of consultation and caused delays. The proposed counterpart regulations will effectively reduce these delays by increasing the Service's capability to focus on Federal actions requiring formal consultation by eliminating the requirement to provide written concurrence for actions within the scope of the proposed counterpart regulations.
The Action Agencies have engaged in thousands of formal and informal consultations with the Service in the 30 years since the passage of the ESA, and have developed substantial scientific, planning, mitigation, and other expertise to support informed decision-making and to meet their responsibilities under ESA section 7 to avoid jeopardy and contribute to recovery of listed species. To meet their obligations, the Action Agencies employ large staffs of qualified, experienced, and professional wildlife biologists, fisheries biologists, botanists, and ecologists to help design, evaluate, and implement proposed activities carried out under land use and resource management plans. All of the Action Agencies consult with the Service on actions that implement land use and resource management plans that contribute to the recovery of proposed and listed species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. In particular, the informal consultation and concurrence process has given the Action Agencies considerable familiarity with the standards for making NLAA determinations for their proposed actions.
Action Agencies have developed familiarity with the standards over time through various activities. The Action Agencies develop proposals and evaluate several thousand actions for possible effects to listed species and designated critical habitat. Agency biologists are members of listed species recovery teams, contribute to management plans that provide specific objectives and guidelines to help recover and protect listed species and designated critical habitat, and cooperate on a continuing basis with Service personnel. In many parts of the country, personnel from the Action Agencies and the Service participate in regular meetings to identify new management projects and the effects to proposed and listed species through formalized streamlined consultation procedures.
The Action Agencies' established biological expertise and active participation in the consultation process provides a solid base of knowledge and understanding of how to implement section 7 of the ESA. By taking advantage of this expertise within the Action Agencies, the proposed counterpart regulations process will help ensure more timely and efficient decisions on planned NFP actions while retaining the protection for listed species and designated critical habitat required by the ESA and other applicable regulations. The Service can rely upon the expertise of the Action Agencies to make NLAA determinations that are consistent with the ESA and its implementing regulations. Moreover, the Action Agencies are committed to implementing this authority in a manner that will be equally as protective of listed species and designated critical habitat as the current procedures that require written concurrence from the Service.
The Healthy Forests Initiative builds from the recognition that faster environmental reviews of proposed land management projects will provide greater benefits to the range, forest lands, and wildlife by reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire while the reviews are pending. These proposed counterpart regulations provide an additional tool for accomplishing faster reviews. Streamlining the NLAA concurrence process offers a significant opportunity to accelerate NFP projects while providing equal or greater protection of the resources. Under current procedures, the Action Agencies already must complete and document a full ESA analysis to reach an NLAA determination. The proposed counterpart regulations permit a project to proceed following an Action Start Printed Page 33809Agency's NLAA determination without an overlapping review by the Service, where the Service has provided specific training and oversight to achieve comparability between the Action Agency's determination and the likely outcome of an overlapping review by the Service. These counterpart regulations should significantly accelerate planning, review, and implementation of NFP actions, and by doing so, should contribute to achieving the habitat management and ecosystem restoration activities contemplated under the NFP.
Proposed Counterpart Regulations
Regulations at 50 CFR 402.04 provide that “the consultation procedures may be superseded for a particular Federal agency by joint counterpart regulations among that agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.” The preamble to the 1986 regulations for implementing section 7 of the ESA states that “such counterpart regulations must retain the overall degree of protection afforded listed species required by the [ESA] and these regulations. Changes in the general consultation process must be designed to enhance its efficiency without elimination of ultimate Federal agency responsibility for compliance with section 7.” The approach proposed in these counterpart regulations is consistent with § 402.04 because it leaves the standards for making NLAA determinations unchanged. The proposed joint counterpart regulations establish an optional alternative process to conduct consultation under section 7 of the ESA for actions that the FS, BIA, BLM, FWS, or NPS might authorize, fund, or carry out to implement the NFP. The procedures outlined in the proposed counterpart regulations differ from the existing procedures in 50 CFR part 402 subparts A and B, § 402.13 and § 402.14(b), by allowing an Action Agency to enter into an ACA with the Service that will allow the Action Agency to make an NLAA determination on a proposed NFP project without informal consultation or written concurrence from the Service. Further, Action Agencies operating under these proposed counterpart regulations retain full responsibility for compliance with section 7 of the ESA.
Under the proposed counterpart regulations, the Action Agencies will enter into an ACA with either FWS, NMFS or both. The ACA will include: (1) A list or description of the staff positions within the Action Agency that will have authority to make NLAA determinations; (2) a program for developing and maintaining the skills necessary within the Action Agency to make NLAA determinations, including a jointly developed training program based on the needs of the Action Agency; (3) provisions for incorporating new information and newly listed species or designated critical habitat into the Action Agency's effects analysis on proposed actions; (4) provisions for the Action Agency to maintain a list of fire plan projects that received NLAA determinations under the agreement; and (5) a mutually agreed upon program for monitoring and periodic program evaluations. By following the procedures in these counterpart regulations and the ACA, the Action Agencies fulfill their ESA section 7 consultation responsibility for actions covered under these proposed regulations.
The purpose of the jointly developed training program between the Action Agency and the Service is to ensure that the Action Agency consistently interprets and applies the relevant provisions of the ESA and the regulations (50 CFR part 402) relevant to these counterpart regulations with the expectation that the Action Agency will reach the same conclusions as the Service. It is expected that the training program will be consistent among Action Agencies, subject to differing needs and requirements of each agency, and will rely upon the ESA Consultation Handbook as much as possible. The training program may include jointly developed guidelines for conducting the ESA section 7 effects analysis for the particular listed species and critical habitat that occur in the jurisdiction of the Action Agency requesting the agreement. Training may also emphasize the use of project design criteria for listed species where they have been developed between the Service and the Action Agency.
Because the Service maintains information on listed species, the Service may supply any new information it receives that would be relevant to the effects analysis that the Action Agencies will conduct to make the NLAA determinations. In addition, the Service will coordinate with the Action Agency when new listed species or designated critical habitat are proposed.
The Service will use monitoring and periodic program reviews to evaluate an Action Agency's performance under the ACA at the end of the first year of implementation and then at intervals specified in the ACA. The evaluation may be on a subunit basis (e.g., a particular National Forest or BLM district) where different subunits of an Action Agency begin implementation of the ACA at different times. The Service will evaluate whether the implementation of this regulation by the Action Agency is consistent with the best available scientific and commercial information, the ESA and section 7 regulations. The result of the periodic program review may be to recommend changes to the Action Agency's implementation of the ACA. These recommendations could include suspending or excluding any participating Action Agency subunit, but more likely may include additional training. The Service will retain discretion for terminating the ACA if the requirements under the counterpart regulations are not met. However, any such suspension, exclusion, or termination will not affect the legal validity of NLAA determinations made prior to the suspension, exclusion, or termination.
Upon completion of an ACA, the Action Agency and the Service will implement the training program outlined in the ACA. At the Action Agency's discretion, the training program may be designed such that some subunits may begin implementing the ACA before agency personnel in other subunits are fully trained. The Action Agency will assume full responsibility for the adequacy of the NLAA determinations that it makes.
Public Comments Solicited
We intend that any final action resulting from this proposal be as accurate and effective as possible. We are soliciting comments or suggestions from the public, other concerned governmental agencies, the scientific community, industry, or any other interested party concerning this proposed rule. Prior to making a final determination on this proposed rule, we will take into consideration all relevant comments and additional information received during the comment period.
If you wish to comment, you may submit your comments by any one of several methods. You may mail comments to the address specified in ADDRESSES. You may also comment via the Internet to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please submit Internet comments as an ASCII file avoiding the use of special characters and any form of encryption. Please also include “Attn: 1018-AJ02” and your name and return address in your Internet message. If you do not receive confirmation from the system that we have received your Internet message, contact us directly at (703) 358-2106. Finally, you may hand-deliver comments to the address specified in ADDRESSES. Our practice is Start Printed Page 33810to make comments, including names and home addresses of respondents, available for public review during regular business hours. Individual respondents may request that we withhold their home address from the rulemaking record, which we will honor to the extent allowable by law. There also may be circumstances in which we would withhold from the rulemaking record a respondent's identity, as allowable by law. If you wish us to withhold your name and/or address, you must state this prominently at the beginning of your comment. We will make all submissions from organizations or businesses, and from individuals identifying themselves as representatives of officials of organizations or businesses, available for public inspection in their entirety.
Executive Order 12866
Executive Order 12866 requires each agency to write regulations that are easy to understand. We invite your comments on how to make this rule easier to understand including answers to questions such as the following: (1) Are the requirements in the rule clearly stated? (2) Does the rule contain technical language or jargon that interferes with the clarity? (3) Does the format of the rule (e.g., grouping and order of sections, use of headings, paragraphing) aid or reduce its clarity? (4) Is the description of the rule in the SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION section of the preamble helpful in understanding the rule? What else could we do to make the rule easier to understand?
Send a copy of any comments that concern how we could make this rule easier to understand to: Office of Regulatory Affairs, Department of the Interior, Room 7229, 1849 C Street, NW, Washington, DC 20240. You may e-mail your comments to this address: Exsec@ios.doi.gov
Regulatory Planning and Review
In accordance with Executive Order 12866, this document is a significant proposed rule because it may raise novel legal or policy issues, and was reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in accordance with the four criteria discussed below.
(a) This counterpart regulation will not have an annual economic effect of $100 million or more or adversely affect an economic sector, productivity, jobs, the environment, or other units of government. The counterpart regulation for the evaluation of conservation efforts when making listing decisions does not pertain to commercial products or activities or anything traded in the marketplace.
(b) This counterpart regulation is not expected to create inconsistencies with other agencies' actions. FWS and NMFS are responsible for carrying out the Act.
(c) This counterpart regulation is not expected to significantly affect entitlements, grants, user fees, loan programs, or the rights and obligations of their recipients.
(d) OMB has determined that this rule may raise novel legal or policy issues and, as a result, this rule has undergone OMB review.
Regulatory Flexibility Act (5 U.S.C 601 et seq.)
Under the Regulatory Flexibility Act (5 U.S.C. 601 et seq., as amended by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA) of 1996), whenever an agency is required to publish a notice of rulemaking for any proposed or final rule, it must prepare and make available for public comment a regulatory flexibility analysis that describes the effect of the rule on small entities (i.e., small businesses, small organizations, and small government jurisdictions), unless the agency certifies that the rule will not have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities. The Regulatory Flexibility Act requires Federal agencies to provide a statement of the factual basis for certifying that a rule will not have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities.
Pursuant to the Regulatory Flexibility Act, we certified to the Small Business Administration that these regulations would not have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities. The purpose of the rule is to increase the efficiency of the ESA section 7 consultation process for those activities conducted to implement the NFP. The proposed changes will lead to the same protections for listed species as the section 7 consultation regulations at 50 CR part 402 and will only eliminate the need for the Action Agency to conduct informal consultation with and obtain written concurrence from the Service for those NFP actions that the Action Agency determines are “not likely to adversely affect” (NLAA) any listed species or designated critical habitat.
Regulations at 50 CFR 402.04 provide that “the consultation procedures may be superseded for a particular Federal agency by joint counterpart regulations among that agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.” The preamble to the 1986 regulations for implementing section 7 states that “such counterpart regulations must retain the overall degree of protection afforded listed species required by the [ESA] and these regulations. Changes in the general consultation process must be designed to enhance its efficiency without elimination of ultimate Federal agency responsibility for compliance with section 7.”
Under the proposed counterpart regulations, the Action Agencies will enter into an Alternative Consultation Agreement (ACA) with either or both of the Services as appropriate. The ACA will include: (1) A list or description of the staff positions within the Action Agency that will have authority to make NLAA determinations; (2) a program for developing and maintaining the skills necessary within the Action Agency to make NLAA determinations, including a jointly developed training program based on the needs of the Action Agency; (3) provisions for incorporating new information and newly listed species or designated critical habitat into the Action Agency's effects analysis on proposed actions; (4) provisions for the Action Agency to maintain a list of fire plan projects that received NLAA determinations under the agreement; and (5) a mutually agreed upon program for monitoring and periodic program evaluations. The purpose of the training program is to ensure the Action Agency consistently interprets and applies the relevant provisions of the ESA and regulations (50 CFR 402), with the expectation that the Action Agency will reach the same conclusion as the Service.
The proposed rule will not have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities for the following reasons: (1) The proposed joint counterpart ESA section 7 regulations only apply to ESA section 7 determinations made by one of the five Federal Action Agencies that implement the NFP; (2) the proposed rule will only remove the requirement for the Action Agencies to conduct informal consultation with and obtain written concurrence from FWS or NMFS on those NFP actions they determine that are NLAA listed species or designated critical habitat; and (3) the proposed regulations are designed to reduce potential economic burdens on the Services and Action Agencies by improving the efficiency of the process. Therefore, we certify that this action will not have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small businesses, organizations, or governments pursuant to the RFA. Start Printed Page 33811
On May 18, 2001, the President issued an Executive Order (E.O. 13211) on regulations that significantly affect energy supply, distribution, and use. Executive Order 13211 requires agencies to prepare Statements of Energy Effects when undertaking certain actions. Although this rule is a significant action under Executive Order 12866, it is not expected to significantly affect energy supplies, distribution, or use. Therefore, this action is not a significant energy action and no Statement of Energy Effects is required.
Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (2 U.S.C. 1501 et seq.)
In accordance with the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (2 U.S.C. 1501 et seq.):
(a) These counterpart regulations will not “significantly or uniquely” affect small governments. A Small Government Agency Plan is not required. We expect that these counterpart regulations will not result in any significant additional expenditures by entities that develop formalized conservation efforts.
(b) These counterpart regulations will not produce a Federal mandate on State, local, or tribal governments or the private sector of $100 million or greater in any year; that is, it is not a “significant regulatory action” under the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act. These counterpart regulations impose no obligations on State, local, or tribal governments.
In accordance with Executive Order 12630, these counterpart regulations do not have significant takings implications. These counterpart regulations pertain solely to ESA section 7 consultation coordination procedures, and the procedures have no impact on personal property rights.
In accordance with Executive Order 13132, these counterpart regulations do not have significant Federalism effects. A Federalism assessment is not required. In keeping with Department of the Interior and Commerce regulations under section 7 of the ESA, we coordinated development of these counterpart regulations with appropriate resource agencies throughout the United States.
Civil Justice Reform
In accordance with Executive Order 12988, this proposed rule does not unduly burden the judicial system and meets the requirements of sections 3(a) and 3(b)(2) of the Order. We propose these counterpart regulations consistent with 50 CFR 402.04 and section 7 of the ESA.
Paperwork Reduction Act
This proposed rule would not impose any new requirements for collection of information that require approval by the OMB under the Paperwork Reduction Act (44 U.S.C. 3501 et seq.). This proposed rule will not impose new recordkeeping or reporting requirements on State or local governments, individuals, businesses, or organizations. We may not conduct or sponsor, and a person is not required to respond to, a collection of information unless it displays a currently valid OMB Control Number.
National Environmental Policy Act
These counterpart regulations have been developed by FWS and NMFS, jointly with FS, BIA, BLM, and NPS according to 50 CFR 402.04. The FWS and NMFS are considered the lead Federal agencies for the preparation of this proposed rule, pursuant to 40 CFR 1501. We have analyzed these counterpart regulations in accordance with the criteria of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Department of the Interior Manual (318 DM 2.2(g) and 6.3(D)), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrative Order 216-6 and have determined that an environmental assessment will be prepared prior to finalization of the rule.
Government-to-Government Relationship With Indian Tribes
In accordance with the Secretarial Order 3206, “American Indian Tribal Rights, Federal-Tribal Trust Responsibilities, and the Endangered Species Act” (June 5, 1997); the President's memorandum of April 29, 1994, “Government-to-Government Relations with Native American Tribal Governments” (59 FR 22951); E.O. 13175; and the Department of the Interior's 512 DM 2, we understand that we must relate to recognized Federal Indian Tribes on a Government-to Government basis. However, these counterpart regulations do not directly affect Tribal resources. These counterpart regulations may have an indirect effect on Native American Tribes as the Bureau of Indian Affairs may, at its discretion, implement the procedures outlined in the counterpart regulations for those activities affecting Tribal resources that they may authorize, fund, or carry out under the NFP. The intent of these counterpart regulations is to streamline the consultation process; therefore, the extent of this indirect effect will be wholly beneficial.Start List of Subjects
List of Subjects in 50 CFR Part 402End List of Subjects
Proposed Regulation Promulgation
Accordingly the Service proposes to amend part 402, title 50 of the Code of Federal Regulations as follows:Start Part
1. The authority citation for part 402 continues to read as follows:
2. Add a new Subpart C to read as follows:
Subpart C—Counterpart Regulations for Implementing the National Fire Plan
Subpart C—Counterpart Regulations for Implementing the National Fire Plan
The definitions in § 402.02 are applicable to this subpart. In addition, the following definitions are applicable only to this subpart.
Action Agency refers to the Department of Agriculture Forest Service (FS) or the Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), or National Park Service (NPS).
Alternative Consultation Agreement (ACA) is the agreement described in § 402.33 of this subpart.
Fire Plan Project is an action determined by the Action Agency to be within the scope of the NFP as defined in this section.
National Fire Plan (NFP) is the September 8, 2000, report to the President from the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture entitled Managing the Impact of Wildfire on Communities and the Environment outlining a new approach to managing fires, together with the accompanying budget requests, strategies, plans, and direction, or any amendments thereto.
Service Director refers to the FWS Director or the Assistant Administrator for Fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The purpose of these counterpart regulations is to improve the consultation process under section 7 of Start Printed Page 33812the ESA for Fire Plan Projects by providing an optional alternative to the procedures found in §§ 402.13 and 402.14(b) of this part. These regulations permit an Action Agency to enter into an Alternative Consultation Agreement (ACA) with the Service, as described in § 402.33, which will allow the Action Agency to determine that a Fire Plan Project is “not likely to adversely affect” (NLAA) a listed species or designated critical habitat without formal or informal consultation with the Service or written concurrence from the Service. An NLAA determination for a Fire Plan Project made under an ACA, as described in § 402.33, completes the Action Agency's statutory obligation to consult with the Service for that Project. In situations where the Action Agency does not make an NLAA determination under the ACA, the Action Agency would still be required to conduct formal consultation with the Service when required by § 402.14. This process will be as protective to listed species and designated critical habitat as the process established in subpart B of this part. The standards and requirements for formal consultation under subpart B for Fire Plan Projects that do not receive an NLAA determination are unchanged.
(a) Section 402.33 establishes a process by which an Action Agency may determine that a proposed Fire Plan Project is not likely to adversely affect any listed species or designated critical habitat without conducting formal or informal consultation or obtaining written concurrence from the Service.
(b) Section 402.34 establishes the Service's oversight responsibility and the standard for review under this subpart.
(c) Nothing in this subpart C precludes an Action Agency at its discretion from initiating early, informal, or formal consultation as described in §§ 402.11, 402.13, and 402.14, respectively.
(d) The authority granted in this subpart is applicable to an Action Agency only where the Action Agency has entered into an ACA with the Service. An ACA entered into with one Service is valid with regard to listed species and designated critical habitat under the jurisdiction of that Service whether or not the Action Agency has entered into an ACA with the other Service.
(a) The Action Agency may make an NLAA determination for a Fire Plan Project without informal consultation or written concurrence from the Director if the Action Agency has entered into and implemented an ACA. The Action Agency need not initiate formal consultation on a Fire Plan Project if the Action Agency has made an NLAA determination for the Project under this subpart. The Action Agency and the Service will use the following procedures in establishing an ACA.
(1) Initiation: The Action Agency submits a written notification to the Service Director of its intent to enter into an ACA.
(2) Development and Adoption of the Alternative Consultation Agreement: The Action Agency enters into an ACA with the Service Director. The ACA will, at a minimum, include the following components:
(i) A list or description of the staff positions within the Action Agency that will have authority to make NLAA determinations under this subpart C.
(ii) Procedures for developing and maintaining the skills necessary within the Action Agency to make NLAA determinations, including a jointly developed training program based on the needs of the Action Agency.
(iii) A description of the standards the Action Agency will apply in assessing the effects of the action, including direct and indirect effects of the action and effects of any actions that are interrelated or interdependent with the proposed action.
(iv) Provisions for incorporating new information and newly listed species or designated critical habitat into the Action Agency's effects analysis of proposed actions.
(v) A mutually agreed upon program for monitoring and periodic program evaluation to occur at the end of the first year following signature of the ACA and periodically thereafter.
(vi) Provisions for the Action Agency to maintain a list of Fire Plan Projects for which the Action Agency has made NLAA determinations. The Action Agency will also maintain the necessary records to allow the Service to complete the periodic program evaluations.
(3) Training: Upon completion of the ACA, the Action Agency and the Service will implement the training program outlined in the ACA to the mutual satisfaction of the Action Agency and the Service.
(b) The Action Agency may at its discretion, allow any subunit of the Action Agency to implement this subpart as soon as the subunit has fulfilled the training requirements of the ACA, upon written notification to the Service. The Action Agency shall at all times have responsibility for the adequacy of all NLAA determinations it makes under this subpart.
(c) The ACA and any related oversight or monitoring reports shall be made available to the public.
(a) Through the periodic program evaluation set forth in the ACA, the Service will determine whether the implementation of this regulation by the Action Agency is consistent with the best available scientific and commercial information, the ESA, and section 7 regulations.
(b) The Service Director may use the results of the periodic program evaluation described in the ACA to recommend changes to the Action Agency's implementation of the ACA. If and as appropriate, the Service Director may suspend any subunit participating in the ACA or exclude any subunit from the ACA.
(c) The Service Director retains discretion to terminate the ACA if the Action Agency fails to comply with the requirements of this subpart, section 7 of the ESA, or the terms of the ACA. Termination, suspension, or modification of an ACA does not affect the validity of any NLAA determinations made previously under the authority of this subpart.
Dated: May 28, 2003.
Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Department of the Interior.
Dated: May 27, 2003.
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Operations, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration.
[FR Doc. 03-14108 Filed 6-2-03; 12:53 pm]
BILLING CODE 4310-55-P