The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was enacted by Congress in 1969 by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, acknowledging that the nation’s established public policies and existing governmental institutions were “not adequate” to deal with growing environmental problems and crises.The law seeks to establish a “productive harmony” between man and nature and directs federal agencies to take into account and publicly disclose the environmental consequences of any proposed actions before taking any steps that may significantly alter the quality of the human environment.Besides improving the substance of agency decisions, the law reinforces grass- roots democracy by providing an avenue for citizens to comment upon and influence government decisions that affect their lives and communities.According to a report by Robert Dreher, deputy executive director of the Georgetown Environmental Law & Policy Institute at Georgetown University, the recent congressional push to amend NEPA amounts to an attack on the law supported by businesses who see it as an impediment, by their political supporters and by certain agency officials who object that NEPA constrains their discretion.NEPA does much more than lay out procedures for approving projects on public lands. It begins by declaring a national policy for environmental protection, calling on the government to use “all practicable means and measures … in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.”According to Dreher, this outright NEPA mandate for sustainable development seems to have been forgotten, not only by development interests intent on short-term profits, but by many public land managers who are caught up in the day-to-day realities of the law, as paper work piles up on their desks.As Dreher describes it, NEPA creates an “action-forcing” mechanism to reduce the environmental damage caused by federal actions, calling for preparation of a “detailed statement” that explains how the action might affect the environment.Those statements, now known as Environmental Assessments (EA) or Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) must consider and disclose to the public:• the environmental impact of the proposed action;• any adverse environmental effects which cannot be avoided;• alternatives to the proposed actions;• the relationship between local short-term uses of man’s environment and the maintenance and enhancement of long-term productivity;• and irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources resulting from the action.The idea is to make federal agencies look before they leap, Dreher says in his report, explaining that the law doesn’t require land managers to choose an environmentally friendly course over a less-friendly environmental option, but merely to ensure that agency decisions reflect environmental values.The third visionary element of NEPA is to create broad opportunities for the public to participate in government decisions that affect their environment. The idea is to enable the public to define environmental issues during the scoping stage, or to propose an alternative approach for the agency to consider (as in the citizen’s alternative I during the White River forest plan revision) and to comment on gaps and misunderstandings in the agency’s analysis during the draft stage.”The true test of NEPA’s successes is not whether agency officials welcome having their decisions publicly scrutinized, but whether the process results in better outcomes,” Dreher writes.
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