On public lands, Americans have a right to a public process. One of the biggest ways that we are ensured a say is through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). And even though we know that talking about it can make your eyes start to glaze over, NEPA is arguably the most important law for environmental quality and public lands management in the U.S., and it’s facing some big potential changes that could scale back your ability to have a voice over your public lands.
NEPA is a law that comes with a corresponding set of rules. Most broadly, NEPA requires government agencies to conduct an environmental analysis on actions that could have a major effect on human health or the environment. That analysis comes in two sizes: an Environmental Assessment (EA), or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for larger actions. For actions that have minor or very little environmental impact, agencies can use “categorical exclusions” that limit NEPA analysis.
Environmental analyses are important for two major reasons:
- We want the government to be making informed decisions with regard to environmental effects. If a company wants to create a new mine, a NEPA analysis will help land managers understand the effects a mine will have on air and water quality, and ways to potentially mitigate any impacts. NEPA doesn’t require that the government take the most environmentally protective course of action—just that it considers environmental impacts in a methodical way.
- These analyses create avenues for public participation. Agencies going through the NEPA process are required to perform an alternatives analysis. This means that they must consider different ways to meet their objective (for example, developing a Forest Plan for a National Forest, including a mix of uses). They present these “alternatives” to the public, who can comment on them.
Industry groups and extractive companies who know their actions have a big effect on the environment would like to see NEPA scaled back to make it easier and faster for them to develop public lands. However, changes to NEPA could come at a big cost for the environment and for your ability to participate in decisions around public lands and waters.
The entity that sets the rules for how NEPA is applied across the government is a relatively little-known office called the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Right now, CEQ is considering making changes to its NEPA rules for the first time in decades. Given the positions that this administration has staked out on environmental issues and public lands, this gives us some anxiety. We’ll be submitting comments, and we think it’s really important for you to weigh in, as well.
We’ve made it easy for you to write to CEQ and tell them that the outdoor community values thoughtful decision making and the public process on public lands and the environment. We’ve created a tool that goes directly to the comment portal (you can also do it at regulations.gov but that system can be tricky to navigate):