Prior to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), there was a clear separation of the federal government, the public, and the environment. Decisions were made based on convenience and financial gain, the public had no say, and impacts on the environment could go unmentioned. Thankfully, that decision process changed when NEPA was signed into law January 1, 1970. NEPA requires the federal government to “use all practicable means to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony”. It holds the government accountable to this by requiring federal agencies to “incorporate environmental considerations in their planning and decision-making through a systematic interdisciplinary approach.” The policy offers a comprehensive framework that agencies can utilize in order to “prepare detailed statements assessing the environmental impact of, and alternatives to, major federal actions significantly affecting the environment.” Essentially, the NEPA process forces the government to do the following things prior to making decisions on whether or not to complete a project:
- Identify potential issues within the proposed project
- Determine viable project alternatives that would alleviate issues
- Complete in-depth studies through a scientific process that looks into potential environmental issues
- Comply with environmental regulations
- Involve the public in all decision making
EA vs EIS
There are two different NEPA statements, Environmental Assessments (EA) or Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). An EA is far less complicated and takes less time than the EIS. This documentation process is only followed if it is unclear that the anticipated impacts will be significant. Occasionally while going through the EA process it becomes obvious that there will be a large impact on the environment and an EIS process will be born out of the EA process. If from the start it is clear that the project is going to cause significant negative impacts on the environment, or if there is a lot of public controversy over the project, the EIS process is required.
NEPA ensures that the public get to have a say in decision making processes. Both the EA and the EIS provide multiple touch points for the public to participate. Depending on which government agency is going through the NEPA process, the public involvement process will vary a bit, but many agencies will offer an initial 30 day comment period for both an EA or EIS process. Some projects, especially those that are highly controversial, will even hold public forums to hear from stakeholders. Regardless of the severity of the project, the review process for both offer the ability to make your voice heard by offering thoughts on how the agency went about its study, which alternative you think is best, or even by proposing your own alternative. Many non profit advocacy organizations like Outdoor Alliance, American Alpine Club,the Wilderness Society, and more utilize the NEPA process to give a voice to the issues that they, alongside their supporters, are fighting for when it comes to public lands protections.
Proposed changes to NEPA:
Having the chance to weigh in on important land management decisions or various project proposals to the federal government is part of what makes the NEPA process great. It allows people to have a say when it comes to local issues such as forest management plans, or national issues like fighting off drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, there are interest groups who would like to see NEPA rolled back in order to make it easier to develop on public lands, and the Forest Service is considering making changes to how it implements NEPA. One of the first things under attack: public engagement. According to Outdoor Alliance, the proposed changes would limit public engagement on Forest Service Projects up to 93%, “and in some cases, eliminate public notice all together”. If these changes are made, the would create loopholes to allow speedier and larger scale resource extraction projects on public lands.
How to take action:
During the summer of 2019 the Forest Service accepted public comment regarding the proposed changes. Many organizations and individuals alike took the time to reach out to lawmakers and the Forest Service in order to voice concerns about the attack on the public process. At this point, the Forest Service is compiling data and considering the received comments and hopes to release proposed directives in January 2020. After they release their proposed plan, they will be offering an additional public comment period. Please check back as January draws near to learn more about how you can offer comment opposing these changes to its application of NEPA.
- Western Environmental Law Center on NEPA Rollback
- Outdoor Alliance Blog on Proposed Changes
- A Citizen’s Guide to NEPA
- American Alpine Club Blog on Proposed Changes
- Updates to Current Revisions of NEPA on the USFS Website
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