We’re also seeing page-number limits and time limits for environmental analysis. One year for an Environmental Analysis and two years for an Environmental Impact Statement. Are those limits feasible?
I don’t see how an agency could comply with those arbitrary limits and really consider public input, or fully analyze the suite of complex issues connected to big decisions.
For instance, look at the Custer Gallatin Forest Plan. The Forest Service received around 30,000 comments from people on the draft EIS last summer, which was one of three public comment periods. Even with not taking any days off, it took the planning team almost eight months to review and respond to all those comments. If they only had two years for the full process, that would be almost half of their allotted time, but it’s only one part of the planning process.
Right now we’re in year four of Custer Gallatin forest plan revision and it’s not done yet. If the Forest Service has only two years for these types of complex decisions, they won’t be able to read all the comments, much less actually consider them, respond to them, and explore the issues that people are raising.
Another concern we have is that the Council for Environmental Quality wants the developer or whoever is proposing the project to set the parameters of the analysis. What does that mean?
It puts industry in control of the process and our public lands.
Say a company is proposing a new ski resort on Forest Service lands. Under CEQ’s new regulations, any alternatives considered in the analysis would have to fit within what the company determines to be economically and technologically feasible, and they’d need to align with the purpose and need defined by the company. Furthermore, the company would be able to do the environmental analysis themselves rather than either the Forest Service doing the analysis or them hiring a neutral third party.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that that process is going to be biased in favor of deciding on exactly what the company proposed.
So, not only will the agency not have as much time to consider your comments or respond to them or dig into the issues that you’re bringing up, but if they don’t fit into what the industry is defining as the parameters of the project, your comments won’t be considered applicable and they won’t even consider them.
The administration also wants to exclude comments that aren’t “technical” or “scientific.” How will that impact our ability to weigh in on our public lands?
If the government decides your comments aren’t specific or they’re not technical enough, they’re going to say your comments don’t count. They’re going to forfeit them. This could go for Indigenous people sharing traditional knowledge about a specific area or topic, or people writing in with values-based comments. It’s totally up to the agency to decide if your comments are technical or specific enough, and if they decide they aren’t, then your comments don’t count. This will disenfranchise a lot of people.
If your comments are forfeited, then you don’t have the ability to sue. So you lose that recourse. Litigation is a tool that is part of the public process. When you believe the government made an illegal decision, you have a right to sue them. That brings in the judicial branch and is an important part of our system of checks and balances. But if the agency says your comments don’t count, then you lose standing on that project and you lose legal recourse.
Also, a lot of people comment on projects through a form letter. They’re sending the letter because they care and maybe they don’t have time to write a detailed technical comment letter. Under these proposed regulations, those comments would likely no longer count. That’s thousands and thousands of comments that the federal government currently receives on any number of projects.
This is a lot to digest. When you take a step back, just looking at the cuts to public engagement, what do you see?
It shouldn’t just be professionals weighing in on decisions affecting public lands, water, and the environment. A really important part of NEPA is that anybody can participate in public land management. You don’t have to be a professional or an expert on the subject. You can still have a say in how your public lands are managed, or how your public waters are managed, or how the air quality in your town is affected.
And what CEQ is proposing here is, basically, you have to be an expert to have a say in environmental matters, or how your public lands are managed. And that’s not right.