Nation's Most Important Environmental Law at Risk
Big changes are being proposed to the country’s first major environmental law — the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Some of the changes would drastically roll back public comment periods, eliminating the voices of hikers like you in proposals that impact our public lands, and the activities we enjoy on them.
Big changes are being proposed to the country’s first major environmental law — the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. This act, and the environmental reviews that it requires, are a cornerstone for gathering public input for projects on federal land.
Some of the proposed changes would drastically roll back public comment periods, eliminating the voices of hikers like you on proposals that impact our public lands, and the activities we enjoy on them.
What does NEPA do?
President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law on January 1, 1970, almost 50 years ago. It was and remains one of the most vital ways that the American public can have their voice heard in environmental decisions. In fact, the federal government itself describes NEPA as “our basic national charter for protection of the environment.” It has not been revised since 2008.
NEPA requires that major proposals on federal lands, like our national parks and forests, are analyzed for their effects on the environment while making sure we all are able to participate in the decisions made about our public lands.
The changes that are proposed would greatly expand the number of type of Categorical Exclusions that the U.S. Forest Service could use. In other words, these changes would mean that some projects that would currently give opportunities for public comment may no longer require that, or allow discretion for public input to fall on the land manager.
But what is a categorical exclusion anyway?
Let’s take a step back.
With NEPA, Congress established the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which oversees federal agencies to make sure they meet NEPA requirements. The council also reviews Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) written by the Forest Service and other federal agencies.
The major gripe with the EIS process is time. According to the CEQ, the average EIS completion time (from notice of intent to the record of decision) was 4.5 years with 25% taking more than 6 years.
Federal agencies can also submit an environmental assessment. If an assessment is completed and no significant environmental impacts are found, then the agency doesn’t need to file an Environmental Impact Statement. Environmental assessments have become a popular alternative to the full Environmental Impact Statement, but they still take an average of nearly 2 years to complete.
As an alternative to the above options, agencies can submit proposals as a categorical exclusion. CEs are activities that agencies have found, from research and experience, do not have a significant environmental impact and do not need extensive environmental analysis. On average, the that process takes 206 days to complete, significantly shorter than both the EIS and EA. One of the major reasons for the much shorter time frame? Categorical exclusions do not require a public comment period.
What’s at stake
On June 13, the Forest Service released proposed rules to amend NEPA regulations. One of the newly proposed changes would adopt seven new CEs and expand two existing CEs. The result would be a wide array of projects would be shielded from any environmental review or public process.
The proposed changes greatly expand the number and type of CEs available to the Forest Service. This means many projects that would have once needed an EIS, and thus legally required public comment, would now fit into the category of a categorical exclusion. That would leave the decision on whether to accept public input up to the land manager
An example of a newly-proposed categorical exclusion would broadly define ecosystem restoration or resilience activities on up to 7,300 acres, including commercial logging of up to 4,200 acres, as long as it includes at least one restoration add-on. In other words? The CE would make it possible to log up to 6.6 square miles without public input or environmental analysis.
The outcome? Our voices could be removed from about 93% of all Forest Service projects. In some cases, notice to the public would be completely eliminated. As described by the Forest Service, 93.3% of all Forest Service decisions will no longer require advance notice or public comment.
How WTA and the outdoor community benefit from the current NEPA process
As the Outdoor Alliance wrote, “NEPA is arguably the most important law for environmental quality and public lands management in the U.S. since it requires that we measure the impact of big changes to public lands — like building a new mine or enlarging a parking lot — and study the potential impacts on air and water quality, recreation access, potential pollution, and more.”
It provides the public, people like you and me, the ability to have a voice in the decisions about the environment and the places we hold dear. NEPA also allows organizations like WTA to engage and provide a voice for the hiking community on efforts like trail- and recreation-management plans for our national forests.
As 2010 report, “NEPA Success Stories: Celebrating Transparency and Government,” summed it up nicely:
- NEPA recognizes that when the public and federal experts work together, better decisions are made.
- Public participation really matters.
- NEPA requires the government to explain itself.
The proposed changes are opposed by not just recreation organizations like WTA, The Mountaineers, Cascade Forest Conservancy, Washington Wild and Outdoor Alliance, but also nationally recognized groups like The Wilderness Society and the National Audubon Society.
The Forest Service is accepting comments on the proposal until Aug. 26 (a recently-extended deadline).
Please take two minutes to sign and add your perspective and concerns to the drafted letter below where it says INSERT WHY YOU RECREATE HERE. Personalizing the letter will ensure that your comment is considered.