A bit of background: NEPA was passed into law by Republicans and Democrats in 1970 during President Nixon’s administration – after federal highways were being rammed through neighborhoods without community input, but with a lot of conflict; and after a 1969 offshore oil spill soaked the beaches of wealthy Santa Barbara.
What NEPA says to federal agencies is “look before you leap.” NEPA regulations require federal agencies to do three things when they’re proposing to permit, fund with federal money, or undertake a project that could have significant environmental consequences: (1) ask you (the public) what you think of the proposal early on, mid-stream, and before the final decision; (2) discuss reasonable alternatives to the project; and (3) back up agency assessments, or predictions, of potential environmental consequences of the various alternatives with science. That is, ask for public input, consider reasonable options, and back up conclusions with facts in environmental impact statements or environmental assessments. And courts will enforce these requirements, though less than 2% of all NEPA documents ever go to court.
For instance, if any federal funds or lands would be used in building a traffic bypass through or around Moab, we could work to arrive at the best options through NEPA. Public engagement in NEPA resulted in the 2016 Moab Master Leasing Plan that planned for recreation and wilderness and not just oil and gas. The Manti-La Sal National Forest has begun a NEPA process to re-do its 36-year-old forest plan, including recreation, mining, grazing, vegetation treatments, archaeology – really, everything.
But now the Trump administration has given you 30 days (until July 20) to suggest how NEPA regulations should be changed to become more “efficient.” This is code word for how should NEPA be changed to speed up permits for expanding coal mining; approving tar sands permits; building highways through your town or backcountry; siting a nuclear waste dump; or any other project some senator, industry, agency, or state wants to undertake with your federal taxes or on public lands, rivers, or oceans.
Make no mistake: the “efficiency” the administration is promoting will only come by cutting back on your voice. Should certain types of major federal projects be allowed to skip NEPA public processes? Should understaffed agencies be told they have to complete major decisions in a few months? Should federal agencies be told they are not allowed to consider climate change in any NEPA decisions?
Here’s an example of a decision without NEPA: Currently, a growing herd of exotic mountain goats, initially helicoptered in, are tearing up the small, rare, alpine area above Moab. They’re kicking out big dust wallows, slicing through rare alpine plants with their hooves when they’re not eating them – and making more goats every year. A state doesn’t have to follow NEPA regulations, so the governor-appointed state wildlife board decided to populate the La Sal alpine area with a herd of 200 goats (there are about 90 so far) over the objection of the Forest Service, by listening almost exclusively to hunters, and by claiming there wouldn’t be any impacts. That latter, ridiculous claim never would have made it through NEPA.
NEPA is an invitation to everyone to help federal agencies think through their best options. It’s about requiring federal agencies to consider how their projects might cause significant harm, and to respond to public input – e.g., from industries as well as tribes, scientists, and individual people who have little money. Consider encouraging this administration to retain NEPA regulations as they are. NEPA is a voice for everyone.
To stand up for your voice and everyone else’s, go to regulations.gov and enter CEQ-2018-0001 in the search box. By July 20.
Mary O’Brien lives in Castle Valley and is the Utah Forests Program Director for Grand Canyon Trust. firstname.lastname@example.org.