Why is the government so afraid of NEPA? 

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Dear Friend of the Forest,

Once again, I’m writing about the federal government’s latest attempt to decrease environmental analysis and public involvement by weakening the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). If this sounds familiar, it’s because last year the Forest Service began this process, but this time, the proposed changes apply to all federal agencies. 

To understand what’s going on, please join me in the legal weeds. In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed NEPA, changing federal decision-making priorities by requiring the government to analyze the environmental impacts of all major federal actions (including private actions permitted or funded by the government). Equally important is NEPA’s mandate that this analysis receives public input and review. However, when Congress passes laws, they are often heavy on vision and scant on details. The details are figured out later in rules and regulations, written by federal agencies in the executive branch.

That’s where the Trump Administration comes in: they aren’t trying to weaken NEPA through Congress, they are using executive branch power to change the rules to limit the type of projects that require environmental analysis, the scope of that analysis, and public engagement. For example, the proposed rules no longer require a project’s cumulative or indirect environmental impacts be analyzed and disclosed.

This would be a big win for fossil fuel projects. Analysis of the construction of an LNG pipeline across federal land would no longer include evaluating connected impacts such as the export terminal or indirect impacts like the carbon emissions from burning the LNG. These changes affect timber sales, too: the Forest Service could plan four different timber sales, all in the same spotted owl critical habitat unit and never discuss the impact of the cumulative loss of habitat on the owls’ survival. Oh, wait—that's what they did in the Crystal Clear Project (but it’s illegal under the current rules, so we sued them).

In short, the Trump Administration’s proposals to change the NEPA rules significantly exclude the public and the environment from the decision-making process. This goes against the very purpose of NEPA and is irresponsible in this time of ever-escalating environmental crises. You don’t have to be a NEPA nerd like me to explain why good decision-making relies on a thorough examination of all the environmental impacts.

Tell the Council on Environmental Quality what you think about these proposed changes. The deadline for comments is March 10th! 

In other NEPA news, for the first time, Mt. Hood National Forest is using a new type of “Categorical Exclusion” (born of the 2017 Farm Bill) that dramatically increased the size of timber sales that can be exempted from full NEPA review. The Pollywog Insect & Disease Project proposes to decrease the spread of insects and disease by commercial logging over 2,000 acres, and all the publicly available information is contained in this brief scoping notice. The only opportunity for public involvement is happening now; let me know if you would like support with writing your comment.

As someone who has been reading NEPA documents for over 20 years, I find myself very frustrated with less information than typically accompanies such projects, as well as the lack of formal public process. If the Trump Administration is successful in changing the NEPA rules, this may be a harbinger of things to come.

Thanks for sticking with me through this wonky update, and for sticking with Bark as we work together to protect the forests and waters of home.

Brenna Bell, Bark Policy Coordinator/Staff Attorney

P.S. NEPA works! The Forest Service dropped 961 acres from the Waucoma Timber Sale based on public involvement and Bark’s comments after groundtruthing the area. The EA for this project is now available for public review and you can submit comments here!

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