What is NEPA?
Picture this: your favorite hiking trail is 30 minutes from your front door in a national forest. You head there every few weeks to recharge, reflect, and adventure with your friends. Then one morning you’re scrolling through your feed and learn a new mine is being proposed right where your favorite trail is. Maybe you’re outraged, or maybe you just wish it were being built somewhere else, not right where you hike every weekend. So you speak up and let the people in charge know you don’t want the mine built on your favorite trail.
Your right to speak up for the wild — your voice being considered in keeping places wild or developed — is all thanks to the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA guarantees citizens information about how a proposed project will affect the environment and human health. It also provides a voice for communities to challenge projects and hold the government and businesses accountable if they fail to meet standards. Without NEPA, you wouldn’t have much of a say in how our public lands are managed.
If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: NEPA is the reason you actually have a voice in how we manage our public lands — and you might not have that voice for much longer.
Because here’s where it gets ugly: in keeping with its agenda to rollback environmental laws, the current Administration recently announced a complete overhaul to NEPA. This rollback would allow companies to develop in areas, including public lands, with far less public oversight or review and makes it much harder (and more expensive) for your voice to matter. But before we talk about what we stand to lose, we need a little background.
Background on NEPA
The National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law in 1970 and radically changed how the U.S. approaches developing land. Prior to NEPA, there was much more separation between the public, the environment, and the government. When development projects were proposed for an area, there was no process to study how it would affect the environment & human health, and there was no process to allow the public to weigh in or challenge the project. Decisions were made solely on convenience and profit —and environmental impacts big or small went unmentioned.
NEPA changed the game. When it was signed into law, it required the federal government to "use all practicable means to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony.” NEPA creates accountability—a system to study and challenge how proposed development projects would affect the environment & human communities, including if an alternative project or no project at all would be better for the environment and public.
NEPA forces the government to consider key things before moving forward with a development project:
- Look for possible issues with a proposed projects
- Study alternatives to proposed projects that would mitigate problems
- Conduct thorough environmental and health studies about a project's impact
- Follow environmental regulations
- Involve the public in all decision making
Essentially, NEPA does two key things: it 1) mandates that development projects perform an environmental & human health study, and 2) consider the public’s voice in decision-making. Now, a proposed project must conduct an environmental study by an independent third-party. These studies are either an Environmental Assessment (a faster, less thorough process for smaller projects) or an Environmental Impact Study (a longer, very thorough process for large, controversial, or impactful projects).
Then, the public can support or challenge the proposed project through 30-day comment periods or public forums that allow communities, outdoor advocates, and organizations like The Wilderness Society and Outdoor Alliance to fight for public land protections.
NEPA in action
Back to my beginning example: say there’s a mine being proposed right on your favorite trail in your nearby national forest. The private company that’s building a mine will lease the land from the government, and thanks to NEPA, it has to study how the mine will affect the environment and public health and consider the community before it can be built.
This will kick off an environmental study, probably an Environmental Impact Study since this mine will be a big project. An independent, third-party organization will measure all the ways the mine will affect the environment (including its contribution to the climate crisis or its effect on endangered species) and human health (like air and water pollution). Then, these results will be shared with the government and the public. Without NEPA, this study likely wouldn’t even happen - or if it did, it wouldn’t be shared with the public.
Next, the public weighs in on the project. This gives you a voice to speak up for your favorite trail, for your community to discuss how it’ll affect them, and it allows non-profit organizations that advocate for public lands to intervene, too. Your voice matters and is a major consideration into whether the project will actually go through or not. In the end, the project may be cancelled, or a better alternative might be proposed, or it will be built adhering to environmental standards. Finally, thanks to NEPA, if the mine violates any of those environmental standards, it allows the public (like you or public land non-profits) to hold private businesses and the government accountable for the environmental harm.
Without NEPA, our wild places could be developed with no regard to how it would affect the environment, and you wouldn’t have a way to stand up for them.
NEPA and racial justice
The extractive industries that operate in our wild public lands aren’t just harmful to the environment — they’re harmful to human health, too. And the people who live, work, and play in America’s most polluted environments are usually people of color and the poor. NEPA promotes environmental justice by requiring federal agencies to study the environmental, economic, and human health impacts on communities. It also provides communities a seat at the table when these projects are considered. But these rights might not be around for much longer.
Proposed changes to NEPA
In 2019, the U.S. Forest Service announced proposed changes to NEPA that would keep the public out of 93% of its projects, and in some cases, eliminate public notice altogether. From mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to a new management plan in your local national forest, this proposed change would roll back your voice in how our public lands are managed.
In July 2020, the Trump Administration revealed rollbacks to NEPA to allow industries - especially the fossil fuel industry - to build projects more easily and cheaply by sacrificing environmental & health standards, transparency and accountability. The overhaul will no longer study how projects contribute to climate change. It will make it very expensive and onerous for communities to challenge a project, effectively cutting the ability for low-income communities to challenge them at all. It will only study environmental and health effects with “close, causal relationship” - meaning many direct and indirect effects of projects will no longer be considered. In short, it guts NEPA and all the power it gives us to challenge environmentally-unfriendly projects that threaten our wild places and home communities.
These changes to NEPA allow industries to develop in public lands and elsewhere with much less regard to the environment and human health — including our wild, public lands. It also removes much of your voice in challenging these projects. But it’s not a done deal, yet: the NEPA rollback will be tied up in the courts for some time before - or if - these changes become official.
Thanks to NEPA, you have a voice and a structure to learn and challenge proposed projects in your community and our public lands. This tool isn’t just critical for recreation, either: it’s crucial for environmental justice, addressing the climate crisis, and defending our wild places, too. We still have a voice in defending our wild places — let’s make sure it stays that way.
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