RESTORING NEPA

NEPA was gutted in 2020 and we’ve been fighting to restore it ever since.

Now, we’re making progress.

What’s sketchier? The backcountry without a beacon? El Cap without the weather report? Class five without a scout? How about the biggest environmental choices of our generation made without science, research or public input?

For nearly 50 years, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has been an empowering legal tool that allows communities in the United States to defend themselves against harmful government and industry actions. NEPA ensures that the federal government makes the best decision based on the best information while engaging and informing the public it serves.

Wild winters stand to win with more environmental review and climate-conscious alternatives to proposed projects on public lands.

WHAT’S NEPA?

Skis were skinny. Packs heavy. Bikes fully rigid. The beer decidedly macro. America was also undergoing an environmental reckoning. Rivers caught fire. Superfund sites grew. The bald eagle dove towards extinction. Realizing the threat to both human health and our planet, Republicans and Democrats came together to create a law that would “encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment.” The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was born.

NEPA was Congress’ way of bringing science and the public voice into major decisions about the American people’s health and land. The law created the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to turn the bill’s soaring rhetoric into a tangible process for decision makers to follow.

Fast forward 50 years…

Our sports evolved. Skis got fatter. Bikes slacker. A climbing film won an Oscar. The CEQ broadened NEPA to integrate climate change and environmental justice into the process. NEPA became an invaluable tool for making better decisions about how we build, drill, and care for our health and planet.

Rivers no longer burned. The bald eagle still soars majestically. Win. 

NEPA established environmental guard rails. If an oil company and an administration want to open Bears Ears up for drilling, they still need to adhere to NEPA and ask for the public’s input. If a foreign corporation wants to open a giant copper nickel mine above the pristine Boundary Waters, they have to use some science to make their case. NEPA wasn’t the giant roadblock to economic progress some would have you believe. It’s kept the worst at bay and made other projects better. And big industry’s bank account has been doing just fine for the last 50 years. 

In the last 50 years, if you’ve left a comment in support of our national monuments, NEPA was the law that allowed you to speak. If you donated to an environmental not-for-profit, they used NEPA as a lever to battle a project like the Dakota Access Pipeline. If you supported a company that sued the administration over Bears Ears, the legal team used NEPA as one of the tools to make their case.

But things are Shaky

Imagine a Jenga Tower. You can lose a lot of blocks before it falls, but a key piece will bring it all down. Clean Water. Public Lands. Climate Mitigation. Public Health. Your voice and ability to participate. They’re all stacked on top of NEPA.

The Trump White House worked to dismantle 50 years of environmental protections. They knew if they gutted NEPA, the rest would come tumbling down. We’re working to restore NEPA and keep the Jenga tower intact.

What happened?

A lot of blatant corner cutting, that’s what.

During the Trump Administration, we saw a rush to cut corners when it came to extraction, development and national monument reductions. In the name of “energy dominance” the Administration disregarded laws, pushed science to the side, dismissed millions of public comments and ignored climate change. Still, thanks to NEPA, judges sided with environmental and community groups.

Frustrated, the White House demanded the CEQ reinterpret NEPA. In one fell swoop, they moved to take away our two most powerful checks and balances — our voice and our legal system. They called it the “Modernization” of NEPA. In reality, it put big industry in charge of the environment. The White House tossed the bulldozer keys to those who stand to reap windfalls off our public lands, our republic and the health of the American people.

With this “modernization,” NEPA stood to become a rubber stamp for digging, drilling, polluting and emitting. Lose the environment part. Leave the questions for the next generation. So much for harmony.

In July 2020 the Trump Administration finalized their new NEPA Rule. Shortly thereafter, Winter Wildlands Alliance and the American Alpine Club joined forces with 20 other conservation and environmental justice organizations to sue the Trump Administration and stop it’s evisceration of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Now it’s time to pick up the pieces.

Over the past two years, our #ProtectNEPA campaign, with the American Alpine Club, has fought to protect wild winter landscapes and climbing areas across the country. Together, we sued the Trump administration for gutting NEPA in 2020 and then petitioned the Biden administration in 2021 to take action to repair the law by restoring critical regulatory requirements that were removed in 2020.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality heard our requests, and began a two phase process to reverse the damaging 2020 changes to the regulations that implement NEPA. In April 2022, the CEQ published a final “Phase 1” rule effectively overturning three parts of the 2020 Rule, restoring key pieces of NEPA and requiring that federal agencies:

  • Consider the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of a proposed project, including an analysis of how greenhouse gas emissions from an action may impact climate change;
  • No longer prioritize the goals of an applicant over the public interest when developing the Purpose and Need or alternatives of a proposed action;
  • Give the public a greater voice in the environmental review process for projects on federal lands;
  • Consider the regulations as a “floor” and not a “ceiling” when considering the value of more protective regulations.

This rule will take effect on May 20, 2022, but it only restores some of the provisions from the original 1978 regulations. Now, it’s on to Phase 2. Phase 2 rulemaking will consider broader changes to the 2020 NEPA regulations. CEQ’s goals with both phases of NEPA restoration are to: meet environmental, climate change, and environmental justice objectives; ensure full and fair public involvement in the NEPA process; provide regulatory certainty to stakeholders; and promote better decision making consistent with NEPA’s statutory requirements.

We’re seeing the fruits of our actions: thank you to everyone that fought with us! And thank you to our members for supporting our year-round work.

Subscribe and become an Alliance member today to support our year-round work to protect our rights as outdoor adventurers and public lands enthusiasts.

Winter Wildlands Alliance is a national nonprofit organization promoting and
preserving winter wildlands and a quality human-powered snowsports
experience on public lands.