Permit Reform

We all know it’s needed, but how do we do it?
By Hilary Eisen, Winter Wildlands Alliance Policy Director

Marissa Joy makes her way up Mount Bierstadt’s rocky ice field on Mount Evans Wilderness Area, Colorado. Unceded Ute and Cheyenne lands.

Photo by Elliot Whitehead @elliot.whitehead

This letter was originally featured in our Fall 2023 Trail Break issue.

What comes to mind when you and weakening environmental review, hear the phrase “permitting reform”? Skiers and other mountain folk might first think of revamping the system for obtaining a coveted backcountry permit or for building new bike trails. Congress and other policy wonks have something else in mind. Whether it’s a desire to quickly develop renewable energy resources, drill and mine for fossil fuels, or to build transmission lines to connect energy sources to consumers: permitting reform is the talk of the Hill.

Enter, NEPA

A lot of the conversations around permitting reform focus on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). If you subscribe to WWA, you’ve received an action alert or read a blog post about our NEPA defense campaign. And if you’ve ever sent a comment letter to a land manager, then you’ve participated in the NEPA process. This is the environmental review process that guides most federal decisions affecting the environment and public lands.

Those who blame NEPA for permitting delays point to lengthy documents that don’t convey pertinent or meaningful information, as well as nuisance litigation that stalls or stops projects.

NEPA defenders, on the other hand, cite the lack of agency capacity to complete environmental reviews in a timely manner (as well as myriad other factors that influence whether a project happens that have nothing to do with permitting, like project funding and market conditions).

NEPA detractors want to speed things up by reducing public participation while NEPA defenders feel the more appropriate course of action is to update how the law is applied, both to be more efficient and to ensure issues like climate change and environmental justice are taken into account.

In June, NEPA detractors in Congress negotiated some changes to the Act via the debt ceiling compromise (a.k.a. the Fiscal Responsibility Act). Fortunately, NEPA defenders are currently leading the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which writes the rules on how the law is implemented.

This summer, CEQ proposed new NEPA regulations that are intended to streamline the NEPA process while staying true to the law’s purposes of environmental protection and transparency. It incorporates the changes prescribed in the Fiscal Responsibility Act but balances these elements with strong environmental justice requirements and clear guidance on incorporating climate change and other direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts, utilizing the best available science, and limits on how exemptions can be applied. This proposed Rule will likely be finalized before the end of 2023.

Meanwhile, conversations are ongoing in Congress about more potential changes or exemptions to NEPA. We continue to track and push back on these ideas while advocating for measures to make permitting more efficient such as fully staffing NEPA teams so that projects can be reviewed in a timely manner. Join us to take action at today!