Request for NEPA Success Stories from Natural Resources Defense Council

NEPA_Success_Stories 1I received a request from Amanda Jahshan of the Natural Resources Defense Council for NEPA “Success stories”. The accumulation of information is being funded by NRDC, which I think is good because I remember when I worked for the Forest Service, we had to yard those up in-house at least once, that I recall. Plus I remember finding similar stories for the Gridlock-Busting Awards during that period.
So below is what she is looking for and I’m hoping we will treat her and her request with our well-known respect and hospitality, and also post them here. Certainly we can mutually learn from successes as well as the “problem children” we discuss every day.

I’m working on a project collecting NEPA success stories from across the country. These stories will be used for a publication (similar to this 2010 ELI publication. I came across your blog and thought that you and/or your contributors might have some leads. All stories are welcome, but we especially need recent stories (preferably since 2000) that:

1. Demonstrate the value of public input – e.g., projects made better through public input or project outcomes shaped by public input
2. Show how the NEPA process resulted in cost-savings – e.g., by choosing a less expensive alternative or avoiding unnecessary costs or more efficient project
3. Projects that avoided unanticipated problems because of public input/expertise
4. Demonstrate how NEPA increased the likelihood that the public would accept a project
5. Highlight the role NEPA plays in environmental justice and avoiding disparate impacts

It’s interesting to me how the questions are framed.. it sounds like “NEPA” is really about the value of public involvement, and not so much environmental disclosure- in fact, you could substitute the word (often critiqued by folks in the environmental law biz) “collaboration” for “NEPA” in some of these questions. While I think the difficulties that are discussed on this blog, associated with NEPA are not from the public involvement process, but having to bullet-proof analysis documents to be able to prevail in litigation.

So I think it would be good to post “success stories” here, of using collaboration or public involvement without NEPA as well just to make the case that public involvement is broader than NEPA. For example, the recent planning rule directives had a public comment period and they are not going through NEPA. I also wonder whether the environmental justice impacts to low-income rural people and communities have been adequately addressed through NEPA, because NEPA only addresses impacts of federal action, not inaction.

If you would like to send your stories directly to her, here is her email (ajahshan@nrdc.org).

6 thoughts on “Request for NEPA Success Stories from Natural Resources Defense Council”

  1. It’s interesting to me how the questions are framed.. it sounds like “NEPA” is really about the value of public involvement, and not so much environmental disclosure . . .

    NEPA requires the federal govenment to “facilitate public involvement in decision making to the fullest extent possible.” 40 C.F.R. § 1500.2(d)

    The goal of NEPA is two-fold: (1) to ensure that the agency will have available and will carefully consider detailed information on significant environmental impacts when it makes decisions; and (2) to “guarantee that the relevant information will be made available to the larger audience that may also play a role in both the decision-making process and the implementation of that decision.” Robertson v. Methow Valley Citizens, 490 U.S. 332, 349 (1989); 40 C.F.R. §1501.2(b).

    Reply
    • I misquoted 40 C.F.R. § 1500.2(d). It should say:

      Federal agencies shall to the fullest extent possible:

      (d) Encourage and facilitate public involvement in decisions which affect the quality of the human environment.

      Reply
  2. John, here’s my view of the purpose of NEPA in the statute:

    Sec. 2 [42 USC § 4321].

    The purposes of this Act are: To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.

    Now maybe a goal is different from a purpose but still…

    Now my point was not very clear, so let me try again:

    Public involvement (and collaboration) are good things but people use them all the time in non-NEPA contexts.

    For example, FACA committees. For example, state, county and town planning and decisionmaking.

    So therefore ascribing good ideas from public involvement as a “function of NEPA” isn’t strictly accurate.

    Recycling is a good thing. There are a lot of good results from recycling even though it isn’t required by law. If there were a law, though, the good would be because of the recycling not because of the law.

    I know if you work in the Legal World, it seems like requiring people to do something is the only way it can happen.
    But in Physical World, that’s not the case. Witness: recycling.

    In fact, some of the most meaningful and idea-laden public involvement I’ve seen were done by the State of Colorado during Colorado Roadless. We would probably have been afraid of having an open discussion due to fear of violating NEPA. In fact, when I worked with stakeholders in some collaborative workshops, they stated that they were left out of involvement with the Forest Service at certain stages due to fear of “violating the NEPA process.”

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  3. Sharon,

    The purposes outlined in the Act include establishing a CEQ. The CEQ has promulgated regulations for implementing NEPA. The “Policy” regulation I quoted above includes facilitating public involvement to the maximum extent possible. The regulations carry the force of law. That is a long way of saying public involvement is a requirement, not just a “goal.”

    I agree that the public is involved in non-NEPA contexts. While I work in the legal world, I do not agree that public involvement will only happen if it is required. But it sure is nice to have a backstop for when it doesn’t happen. I’m sure I could dig up a case in which public involvement didn’t happen and a NEPA violation occurred.

    Interestingly, nobody has posted a NEPA victory. It seems that talking about NEPA in the litigation context is bound to get somebody upset here–thus no “victory” for everyone involved. I think there are NEPA victories outside of the legal realm. I used to comment on timber sales. As a result, the Forest Service sometimes reduced the size of sales. We didn’t litigate, the area was logged. Everybody went home relatively happy. If NEPA didn’t exist, the Forest Service may not have asked for public involvement or input and the sale might not have been reduced in size. The agency might have asked, but I sure am glad that NEPA required it.

    Reply
  4. John, while there are many folks who have greater NEPA knowledge than I, I didn’t just fall off the NEPA “turnip truck” as my former cubicle neighbor DeAnn Zwight would say. I understand that CEQ promulgated regulations and agencies are required to follow regulations. In fact, I attended more meetings than I care to count with CEQ folks on various topics when I was the Assistant Director for NEPA at the Forest Service in D.C., and also when I worked on the OSTP/CEQ task force on regulation of genetically engineered organisms in the environment.

    However, I don’t think many folks would consider your timber sale a “NEPA” victory. They would consider it a project victory where people agreed enough both to meet the goals (in NEPA jargon, “purpose and need”) and to not get litigated.

    This discussion reminds me of a discussion the NEPA practitioners used to have about whether the FS had substituted “the NEPA process” as a decision framework for agency decisionmaking.

    It also reminds me of the Decision Protocol here’s a link to the crosswalk between Decision Protocol and NEPA documentation.

    I know there are readers of this blog who were involved in the development of the Decision Protocol.. maybe one of you would like to author a blog post on it?

    Reply
  5. Sharon,

    Your original post made it sound like you didn’t think that NEPA is about public involvement.

    I pointed out the CEQ Regs.

    You tried to distinguish between NEPA’s “purpose” and its “goals”.

    I point out that the regs are not goals, that NEPA requires public involvement.

    You tell me you didn’t fall off the turnip truck.

    I was trying to be constructive by talking about potential non-legal victories where the public was involved in the NEPA process, and you said many wouldn’t consider timber sales that move forward after NEPA and public participation a victory.

    What do you consider a NEPA victory?

    You said that “if you work in the Legal World, it seems like requiring people to do something is the only way it can happen.”

    I agreed that public involvement happens outside of NEPA, but I said it is a good backstop.

    Case in point: The 2000 NFMA planning rules. The rules were challenged in the Ninth Circuit. Here’s what the court said:

    “Citizens were deprived of the opportunity to comment on the USDA’s EA and FONSI at all points in the rulemaking process. This deprivation violated their rights under the regulations implementing NEPA. See 40 C.F.R. § 1501.4(b) (“The agency shall involve the public, to the extent practicable, in preparing [EAs] ….”); id. § 1506.6 (“Agencies shall … [m]ake diligent efforts to involve the public in preparing and implementing their NEPA procedures[,] … [p]rovide public notice of … the availability of environmental documents so as to inform those persons … who may be interested or affected[,][and] … [s]olicit appropriate information from the public.”).”

    Citizens for Better Forestry v. USDA, 341 F.3d 961, 970 (2003).

    Reply

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