The Trump administration’s proposal to exempt some of the nation’s most controversial developments, such as pipelines and mines, from scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is more than just a bone thrown to corporate interests or another example of the administration’s disregard for the environment. The recently proposed changes threaten the democratic ideal that all citizens should have an opportunity to participate in the federal decision-making process.
NEPA has been called the cornerstone of environmental protection in this country. It has been emulated by states and other countries to promote inclusive, science-based decision-making on projects that are federally funded, on or near federal lands, or that require federal permitting. It requires federal managers to look at a broad range of reasonable, common-sense alternatives to accomplish project or planning goals, and analyze their effects on local communities and the environment. It is NEPA that requires those analyses be available for all to see and provides for transparency and inclusion in federal decision-making.
NEPA doesn’t insist that the most environmentally friendly option be enacted. Rather, the goal of this bedrock legislation is to establish procedures that promote good decisions. NEPA ensures that the environment is considered in projects, along with economics and a broad range of social and natural assets. The goal of NEPA is not to tie the hands of federal managers or stop projects, but to hear from all those affected and make the best decision possible.
The changes proposed by the Trump administration would wholly exempt many projects from the requirements of NEPA, including privately funded projects and projects requiring federal permits. A corporate-funded mine proposed within view of Grand Canyon National Park? A natural gas plant just outside Acadia National Park’s boundaries? It is possible that under new regulations, neither would trigger NEPA requirements for public engagement and analysis of effects on what NEPA calls “the human environment.”
For those projects on federal land that would trigger NEPA regulations, no longer would indirect or cumulative effects need to be considered. This would encourage big projects with potentially big impacts to be broken into several smaller projects to avoid public input or analyzing alternatives. Death by a thousand cuts is still death. The time allowed for public input would be reduced, and new statutes of limitations would be imposed. Some decisions would be elevated from career federal employees to politically appointed officials. At the rollout of the proposed changes, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist, said he believed this would be the most significant deregulatory proposal implemented by President Donald Trump.
During my career participating in NEPA-based decision making in national parks, I have seen public input fundamentally change projects for the better. Federal Highways Administration projects in Acadia National Park were scaled back to ensure sensitive natural and cultural resources were protected and roads fit in harmony with the landscape. Tough decisions surrounding the park’s recently approved Transportation Plan were influenced by comments from local residents, as well as business, tourism and environmental groups. The law not only requires National Park Service managers to engage the public in their decisions, it provides park superintendents the opportunity to join decision-making on adjacent lands where projects requiring federal permits like mines or pipelines could adversely affect park visitors and resources.
Why, then, would anyone propose that a law enacted to “promote the general welfare” and “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations” be taken away from some of the potentially most impactful and controversial projects nationwide? I can only conclude that this administration wants to return to the days of backroom decisions that benefit a few, at the expense of the many.
Don’t let this administration take away your voice in protecting national parks and other federal lands. Join us in opposition to the proposed changes.
You can submit your comments identified by docket number CEQ– 2019–0003 at the Federal eRulemaking Portal. Public comments must be received by March 10, 2020.
Judith Hazen Connery‘s 38-year federal career as a natural resource manager included serving as Acadia National Park’s NEPA coordinator and teaching NEPA-based decision-making to other National Park Service employees. She is a member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.