Commentary: Trump administration takes aim at America’s bedrock environmental law

NEPA is known to many as the law that requires the government to look before it leaps.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bruce Adams, right, Chairman of the San Juan County Commission has his hat signed by U.S. President Donald Trump at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, following Trump's signing of two presidential proclamations to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Remember when President Trump cut Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent last year? And slashed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument nearly in half? Management plans are being developed right now for both monuments by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Do you want input into whether new off-road routes should be created near archaeological sites in Bears Ears or whether oil and gas operations should be given the green light to suck water out of Grand Staircase springs? Your best shot is through NEPA, but the Trump administration is after NEPA, too.

What’s NEPA? The National Environmental Policy Act. You might not recognize this 1970 law by name, but NEPA is the Magna Carta of environmental laws. It’s the United States' most widely imitated law — over 160 other countries have adopted legislation based on it. Why? Because it guarantees citizens like you and me a right to participate in decisions about federal projects that affect our communities and our environment. NEPA requires government agencies to take a hard look at the environmental and public health impacts of projects and to use science (not “alternative facts”) in that hard look. For 48 years, NEPA has been a powerful tool for communities to protect themselves from dangerous or poorly planned projects. NEPA is known to many as the law that requires the government to look before it leaps.

You may have heard of or commented on environmental impact statements (EISs) or environmental assessments (EAs). These are the public documents that federal agencies must prepare according to NEPA regulations whenever they propose to permit a project—like giving a permit to tar sands mining on Forest Service wildlands — or develop a plan — like clearcutting thousands of acres of pinyon and juniper — that might result in significant environmental impacts.

Some examples? The state of Utah relied on NEPA to ensure that the environmental impacts of the proposal to store high-level nuclear waste on the Skull Valley Reservation were adequately analyzed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the midst of a NEPA process to decide how and where hunting will be expanded in the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Both the Ashley and Manti-La Sal national forests have begun a NEPA process to change how those national forests are managed.

NEPA regulations require federal agencies to answer three questions about projects, permits or plans they are proposing to undertake or fund (with your taxpayer money): (1) What comments or ideas are you getting from the public about your proposal? (2) What options or alternatives are you considering? (3) What environmental impacts might be caused by your project and the alternatives (based on the best available science)? In other words, agencies must gather and respond to public input, think about alternative approaches, and use science to make the best decision.

Our president often speaks of handing out industrial permits “so fast your head will spin.” So it’s not surprising that the Trump administration now wants your thoughts on how to make NEPA more “efficient.” Make no mistake: efficiency is a code word for speeding up permits and plans. Does efficiency mean reducing the types of projects and plans on which you can comment? Does it mean agencies will be allowed to barely describe alternatives that might be better? Does it mean federal agencies will be allowed to ignore climate change in their decisions to permit a coal mine expansion or further reduce sage grouse habitat?

Think about a world where our government can make fateful decisions more quickly by reducing public input, ignoring options, and making up “facts.” Efficient, but deadly.

On June 20, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (which oversees NEPA regulations) issued 20 questions for public comment about revising the sturdy 48-year-old NEPA regulations and gave you 30 days to respond. Public outcry resulted in an extension of the public comment period by 30 more days, until August 20.

You can get to the June 20 Federal Register notice by googling “NEPA Revision Comments”. You can comment by going to “www.regulations.gov” and entering “CEQ-2018-0001” in the “search” field. You can comment on any or all of the 20 questions, or you can simply stand up for NEPA regulations as they are. They’re really about thoughtful government decision-making. What’s the alternative?

| Courtesy Mary O'Brien, op-ed mug.

Mary O’Brien is the Utah Forests Program Director at the Grand Canyon Trust, and lives in Castle Valley, Utah.