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NEPA "modernization’ discussed

Jane Stebbins

COPPER MOUNTAIN – A consortium of state and federal officials met Thursday in a roundtable discussion to figure out how to “modernize” the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA).

The conference, which continues today at Copper Mountain Resort, was held to discuss how to streamline NEPA processes, restore the original intent of the act, encourage collaboration between state, federal and local entities and get the public more involved in the process.

NEPA is a national policy designed to prevent or reduce damage to the environment and enrich the understanding of ecological systems and natural resources.

In Colorado, NEPA is used to evaluate the effects of such things as ski area expansions, highway widenings and trail construction – among many other things – on the environment.

When a project could impact an ecosystem, NEPA requires the developer to conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA) or a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Conference attendees agreed NEPA is still a valuable document. But in the 33 years since its implementation, it has become cumbersome for those proposing projects, has alienated the public from participation and has forced project applicants to generate giant reports in fear their data won’t be deemed adequate, said Fred Wagner, a Washington, D.C., attorney whose firm focuses on environmental review and permit processing.

“There is an overemphasis on procedure,” he said. “We need to get away from covering all our bases because we’re afraid of litigation. We need to identify the key issues and address them and not be worried that if you don’t submit a 2,000-page report your project will be denied. The substance of the act of 33 years ago has to be reinstated.”

A task force comprised of career civil servants consulted with numerous agencies, solicited public comment and drafted a report that makes recommendations to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to make changes that would make the implementation portion of the act more efficient.

Locally, streamlining the process could help the U.S. Forest Service, which has been bogged down in paperwork surrounding the Upper Blue Stewardship Project that would remove dead trees from along the Ten Mile Range to prevent catastrophic wildfire.

That proposal has been in the works for years, as has Copper Mountain’s expansion proposal.

Others move more rapidly through the process, like recent lift installations at Keystone and Breckenridge ski resorts.

The modernization proposal is not without its detractors. Some, particularly those critical of changes the Bush Administration has made to the nation’s environmental laws, say changes could undermine the very elements of the act that do the most to protect the environment.

“The devil’s in the details,” said Elizabeth Bell, an attorney whose practice focuses on Indian and environmental law. “There are a lot of people holding their breath to see where exactly this all goes.”

The task force’s recommendations address EAs, adaptive management processes, categorical exclusions, how to better use modern technology and how to get more public participation in the decision-making.

Currently, many EISs run from 200 to 2,000 pages, take one to six years to complete and cost from $250,000 to $2 million to create.

That huge creation of paperwork was not what the original authors of NEPA intended, and project proposers shouldn’t feel obligated to draft large reports to impress upon others the importance of the project, according to the task force.

The task force also recommends NEPA modify its adaptive management process – the management of ecosystems and mitigating impacts to them – to include monitoring ecosystems.

Currently, that process doesn’t account for unanticipated changes in the environment or new information that might affect the original environmental protections.

The task force also recommends streamlining categorical exclusions, described as areas that will be minimally impacted – if at all – by a project, and therefore shouldn’t have to undergo EA or EIS reports.

Some project proponents feel they should conduct such analyses to protect themselves, when NEPA does not require that.


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