Changes to a bedrock conservation law threaten to put blinders on federal decision-makers
As sportsmen and women know, big game animals migrate through landscapes that stretch across many boundaries. Rivers cross both state lines and international borders. Fish swim not only in large navigable waters, but in their tributaries, including ones that are small, intermittent or even ephemeral; some fish, in early life stages, live in wetlands. And the North American flyways send ducks and other waterfowl across our whole country and into Canada every year.
Our world is interconnected, which means we must look holistically at the impacts that human development has on land, water, wildlife, and fish.
Unfortunately, the Administration’s recently proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act would significantly inhibit federal agencies’ ability to measure these impacts.
President Richard Nixon signed NEPA into law in 1970 directing federal agencies to take actions that “restore and enhance [and also] avoid or minimize any possible adverse effects of their actions upon the quality of the human environment.”
NEPA requires every federal agency to consider the effects of its decisions on the environment; to look at a range of alternatives before acting; and to seek public comment on various aspects of a given project, from its scope and positive or negative effects to possible alternatives and mitigation.
The rules guiding this process have not been updated since the 1980s, but earlier this year the Administration proposed a major set of changes: some of which threaten to undermine its effectiveness and others that are welcome improvements.
For example, because so much of our communication is now conducted online, agencies should use web-based tools to announce proposed decisions and collect public comments. This is a welcome improvement.
There are also changes to streamline the process, in an effort to address widespread complaints that NEPA documents are too lengthy and take too long to develop. TRCP supports these changes, in part because they do not impose rigid or arbitrary limits. We just hope the agencies are given the resources to accomplish these goals.
As noted above, however, other changes are cause for concern. The purpose of NEPA has never been to require a specific outcome, but instead to ensure that federal decision making is well-informed by an awareness of and concern for any potential environmental impacts.
Perhaps the most dramatic proposed change would eliminate an agency having to consider the cumulative impacts of its actions and look only at the immediate action’s direct effects on nearby lands and waters. These changes so limit NEPA’s directive to consider reasonably foreseeable effects that it would force agencies to consider an action in a vacuum. The TRCP strongly opposes this change because we live in a world both that is both connected and ever-changing.
It is hard to imagine how an agency considers acting on a proposal without looking both at what is already there –roads and dams, cities and farm fields – and also what is expected in the near future – other new coastal developments, oil wells, timber sales or dams. Under the administration’s proposed rules, for example, agencies will not consider how multiple energy development proposals proposed across the same corridor would have a cumulative impact on a mule deer migration. Nor would agencies be required to study how a project that diverts water would add to a larger problem, such as serious drought conditions on a river system that already has multiple diversions.
So, please think about your future as sportsmen and women and exercise your public right to have a voice in this decision. Click here to learn more and submit a public comment by March 10.
Photo: Bob Wick, BLM via Flickr