The National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law on January 1, 1970. For 50 years, it has helped the government consider the environment in its decision-making. Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about the law, how it’s implemented, and what it means for outdoor enthusiasts.
What is NEPA?
Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act is our nation’s cornerstone environmental law. It requires the government to consider the environment in its decision-making. It also provides an avenue for the public to engage in those decisions. It’s not a vote, but the National Environmental Policy Act is the vehicle that brings a democratic process to America’s land, rivers, oceans, mountains, and more.
What does it do?
The National Environmental Policy Act ensures transparency. If the Forest Service wants to roll back the Roadless Rule to allow logging of old growth trees in the Tongass, or the Bureau of Land Management wants to sell oil and gas leases near your local mountain bike trails in the Southwest, you’ll know about it.
And if you know about it, you can do something about it.
The National Environmental Policy Act also provides opportunities for the public (that’s you!) to weigh in on that decision. The law requires the government to respond and address your concerns. They also have to analyze their decision based on the best available science.
Bottom line? NEPA triggers a decision-making process that’s informed and transparent. As a result, it leads to better outcomes for all.
What does the National Environmental Policy Act mean to me, as a backcountry skier and outdoor enthusiast?
Chances are, the places where you love to backcountry ski and recreate are owned and managed by the federal government, whether it’s the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or the National Park Service. And the thing is, a lot of people and species have a stake in these lands. They’re public. So the agencies have to balance many different interests—including resource extraction—and also think about future generations. So if you want them to think about protecting the places where you love to backcountry ski, the National Environmental Policy Act is the law that gives you the chance to do that.
Who’s in charge of making sure it gets implemented?
The law itself is short, relatively speaking. It’s less than six pages. So, to give clarity and structure about how the law should be implemented, Congress created the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). CEQ sets the big picture. They are tasked with ensuring there’s a good process and clear regulations in place for federal agencies to follow the National Environmental Policy Act. In addition to CEQ regulations, each agency also has its own set of NEPA regulations that are specific to the issues they deal with.
How does it work?
It’s helpful to think of NEPA as a ski slope with beginner, intermediate, and expert terrain. The rules are different for each.
Let’s start with the small projects. Like beginner terrain, there’s not much potential risk or consequence here. CEQ (or Congress) gives each agency a list of activities they can exclude from in-depth analysis. This is called a Categorical Exclusion, or a CE, and it is the most streamlined, least intensive process, kinda like cruising down a bunny slope. But watch out: Categorical Exclusions also have the fewest opportunities for the public to get engaged.
What if it’s a bigger project, but the agency suspects it won’t have a “significant” environmental impact? That’s intermediate terrain, the blue square of projects, and they get an Environmental Assessment, or an EA. This is basically a way for the government to decide if a more in-depth analysis is warranted or not. The EA is a bit a crux. It’s a moment of truth. The public gets to weigh in, but it’s meant to be a concise document that will prompt one of two things. Either the analysis shows that there’s no significant impact and the project can move forward, or the project requires a lot more environmental analysis, and then we venture into expert terrain.
The expert terrain of the National Environmental Policy Act is called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS. This is the document federal agencies must prepare if they are proposing a “major” action that will “significantly” impact the human environment. Just like skiing a big line in the backcountry, there are many stages and steps to take in planning a project like this through the EIS process.
It begins with a Notice of Intent. (See that couloir in the distance? We want to ski it.) Then the agency moves into a Scoping process. (Who’s got beta on that line? We want to talk to them.) Just like there’s more than one way to ski a line, there’s also more than one way to pursue a project, and the National Environmental Policy Act requires the government to consider several different alternatives. (Do we climb straight up the gut and ski it? Or do we hike around and drop in from above? What are the pros and cons of each?) They develop these alternatives with the information, relevant science, and public comments gathered during Scoping.
After the government has collected a bunch of information and science about the project, they publish a draft EIS and ask for public comment on that. This would be like you posting a photo to Facebook of the line you want to ski and asking for more opinions about whether and how you should ski it. After you’ve gotten all that feedback, you’re probably going to want to think about it and consider the different points of view, right? The government does the same thing.
Finally, the morning arrives to ski your big line. The government publishes the Final Environmental Impact Statement, which includes their response to all the comments they received, along with a draft Record of Decision. For some agencies, like the Forest Service, the Final EIS offers one last chance to object on the project before the government publishes the final Record of Decision. Are you ready to drop in yet?
How long does it take?
It definitely takes more time to plan something out well than to charge blindly forward. Sometimes, as in the case of that massive road gap kicker you were thinking about building with your neighborhood friends, a little planning (and science, and maybe even a little caution from your mother) helps avoid a trip to the hospital with catastrophic bone trauma. The median time it takes the Forest Service to complete a NEPA analysis is 131 days. In most cases, good NEPA analysis helps avoid massive future delays, costs, species extinctions, and other pitfalls later in the project. Remember: proper planning prevents poor performance.
Does every government decision involve NEPA?
No, just those that are likely to “significantly” affect the human or natural environment. Who decides what’s significant? The Council on Environmental Quality. (And this point deserves an asterisk given current events.) One of the crux issues du jour is how CEQ determines what triggers NEPA, and what doesn’t, and if it does, what level of analysis is required. Because the whole point of CEQ’s revisions is to make it easier for corporations and polluters to get their projects approved, they are, among other things, removing many of the triggers that initiate NEPA. Alarm bells are ringing.
What does the National Environmental Policy Act have to do with climate change?
It’s as simple as this: Climate change asks all of us to consider the global, collective, and long-term impact of our individual actions, and the National Environmental Policy Act holds federal government agencies accountable to that same collective and global responsibility.
The regulations that currently exist for the National Environmental Policy Act require decision-makers to consider their project’s impact on the environment in three ways: direct effects, indirect effects, and cumulative effects. This is the regulation that forces decision-makers, say the BLM, to measure the impact of their project in the broader terms of climate change. Let’s look at an oil pipeline, for example. If a corporation wants to build an oil pipeline, courts have ruled that “agencies must evaluate downstream greenhouse gas emissions” that the pipeline would create.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires decision makers to not only study the impacts of proposed projects on climate change, but also disclose those findings to the public. For those who live on the front lines of climate change, and especially marginalized, minority, and low-income communities, the National Environmental Policy Act plays an unequivocally important role for social and environmental justice.
Except, now the White House wants to shortcut the whole thing. Essentially, they don’t want agencies to have to bother making a distinction between direct and indirect effects. They want to remove all analysis of cumulative effects. If that happens, the White House will effectively eliminate any analysis of climate change for projects that are pumping fossil fuels into the atmosphere.
Responding to the White House’s proposal, Representative Diana DeGette from Colorado wrote a letter to the Council on Environmental Quality.
“Human-caused climate change is exactly the kind of complex environmental problem NEPA was intended to address,” Degette wrote. “The very nature of the climate crisis is that climate change impacts—such as sea level rise—can be quite remote in time and geography from the human causes of climate change, including the combustion of natural gas, oil and coal, and the clear-cutting of forests. The [CEQ] proposal ignores the reality of climate change and the critical role NEPA plays in addressing it.”
How has NEPA benefited the environment?
For 50 years, the National Environmental Policy Act has played an important role in defending the planet, our environment, public health, wildlife, and public lands from pollution, climate change, and greed. In one very recent example, in March, a federal court ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement for the Dakota Access Pipeline, citing the National Environmental Policy Act. That’s a huge win for the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, who mounted a resistance against this pipeline in 2016 and have been fighting the U.S. Government and the oil industry ever since.
Is there a NEPA process I can engage in today?
Why yes! We’re glad you asked. Whether it’s forest planning, winter travel planning, planning a specific access trail or trailhead, or defending a popular backcountry skiing zone from development, Winter Wildlands Alliance works with the National Environmental Policy Act on a near-daily basis. You can keep up with the most up-to-date projects that are moving through the National Environmental Policy Act process on our Action Center. Another good way to stay updated is the Federal Register, where the government publishes all documents for public disclosure.