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The erosion of environmental policy

October 05, 2005|Erica Rosenberg

THE BUSH administration and Congress have been chipping away at the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that requires federal agencies, such as the Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, to do environmental impact reviews of their actions and programs. Now the House is about to consider how to "modernize" the act, but based on what the White House and Congress have already done, it's clear that the agenda isn't so much updating the law as gutting it.

Like other recent campaigns that have hidden environmental assaults under euphemisms -- such as the Clear Skies Initiative, which aimed to roll back air pollution controls -- the attack on NEPA is being sold as something it isn't: cooperative conservation.

The act, a Nixon-era law and one emulated around the world, outlines a process for considering environmental factors in federal decision-making about such things as dam building, grazing, offshore drilling, roadless-area protection and highway expansion. It requires the government to analyze and disclose environmental impacts of proposed actions and to examine alternatives, and it allows the public -- local governments, Indian tribes, individual citizens -- to participate in the decision.

The act is set up so that the greater the environmental impact of a project or policy, the more analysis and public input it requires. It calls for a full-scale environmental review, in the form of an environmental impact statement, for major actions, and a shorter assessment for actions with less significant impacts. When a project is routine and has no significant environmental impact, such as painting a fence or removing brush, the act also allows for exemptions from analysis.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 14, 2005 Home Edition California Part B Page 11 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Environmental effect: An Oct. 5 commentary about the National Environmental Policy Act incorrectly stated that the U.S. Forest Service now classifies as environmentally benign logging in burned areas of up to 4,200 acres. The agency so classifies logging in burned areas of up to 250 acres.

The act cannot by itself stop harmful projects, but it can substantially improve the environmental outcome. In Utah, for example, it resulted in moving a radioactive waste site away from the Colorado River. In North Carolina, a proposal for an erosion-control project was withdrawn because it meant rerouting a fishing stream. In these cases and many others, the act has served as an instrument of democracy. In short, it is already the statutory embodiment of cooperative conservation.

To get a sense of the Bush administration's antipathy for the act, one need only look at how the U.S. Forest Service -- overseen by Bush's undersecretary of Agriculture, Mark Rey -- has implemented it. In June 2003, for example, the agency decided that logging done in the name of hazardous fuels reduction on up to 1,000 acres of land, as well as logging in burned areas up to 4,200 acres, was as benign environmentally as clearing brush. It claimed, shockingly, that logging of such magnitude would have no significant impact and therefore needed no environmental review or public comment.

This week, the Forest Service is expected to apply such "streamlining" yet again. A proposed rule change would exempt its entire forest-management planning process from environmental review. That means that the agency can put together a plan for logging, mining, off-road vehicle use and more on public lands without having to consider environmental effects or deal with citizen input. That process, instead, would kick in as each piece of the plan is implemented. But as more and more kinds of actions are made exempt, fewer and fewer reviews will actually take place.

Congress uses the same tactic of expanding the categories that are excluded from the full-blown NEPA process. In one rider on a recent appropriations act, a set of grazing allotments in Nevada were simply made exempt from environmental review. The aim of such waivers is to grant corporate interests -- such as the cattle industry, timber concerns or the oil and gas industry -- largely unfettered access to public lands.

Review after review, including a 2003 study by the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, have shown the act to be an effective planning tool and a critical element of open and accountable government.

It is precisely because of the act's success in building consensus and advancing broad public interests over narrow corporate ones that the administration has been undercutting it. Now, Congress stands poised to dismantle a cornerstone of civic engagement. The effects of this surely will not be limited to the environment -- they will be felt by our democracy itself.

ERICA ROSENBERG directs the Program on Public Policy at Arizona State University's College of Law. She was on the Democratic staff of the House Resources Committee from 1999 to 2004.

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