Most of us would agree, government is a large, powerful entity that needs proper oversight. We may disagree on many things, but public oversight of government is usually not one of them.
One of the most powerful tools people in our country have is the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
NEPA requires federal agencies to issue an Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Statement for any federal action that significantly affects the quality of the human environment.
The assessment or impact statement must explain the proposed action and the expected effects it would have, and it must explore a range of alternatives, rather than just present one solution. The government must then allow the public an opportunity to comment on the proposed action.
Often, the comments received from the public save taxpayer money by showing less costly ways to meet the project’s needs. Another outcome is to achieve the same goal but with reduced effects.
One of the most important aspects of NEPA is the mere fact that government agencies know they are being watched. This helps those government workers who are trying to make good decisions, and it hinders those who are either sloppy or are not serving the public interest.
An easy law to support, or so one would think. So why are there 11 legislative proposals currently in Congress to limit public input through NEPA (in the last Congress there were more than 60 such bills)? Most of these bills are supported by politicians who purport to want to limit government. How can that be?
The answer lies in politics, not policy. The difference is how things play over television versus in real life.
The political myth is that NEPA litigation is a major hindrance to the wise and helpful actions of government, such actions as permitting highways, power plants and gas and oil development. The reality is that NEPA is a minor player in court, but a major player in the average person’s ability to be heard and considered by governmental actions.
The myth is that it is an overused tool by environmental groups and others to block governmental facilitation of job-creating actions; this is shown to be false by looking at the actual numbers.
Of the nearly 50,000 federal actions subject to NEPA every year, less than half of 1 percent are subject to litigation.
A lot of the consternation in the West is based on the falsehood that NEPA litigation harms our ability to handle forest health and timber management, and energy development on public lands.
Thinking that excluding the public from public-land management will increase sensible land management can only be based on a belief that the federal government knows how to manage local lands better than the people who live here.
If you like the idea of an unfettered government, attack NEPA. If you like the idea of democracy and limits on government, support NEPA. Unfortunately, in the bizarre world of Washington, D.C., they have it all backward.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.