December 09, 2019

The National Environmental Policy Act at 50

Wasatch Environmental Update for December 8, 2019

By John Worlock

The National Environmental Policy Act at 50

When we celebrate the New Year this year on January First, we will also be celebrating the 50th anniversary of The National Environmental Policy Act, popularly known as NEPA.  It was signed by President Nixon in the heady days of emerging environmental awareness.  Nixon is quoted as suggesting that with NEPA,  “America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water and our living environment.”

Adam Sowards, an environmental historian, writing in High Country News, tells us of NEPA’s optimistic promises, but then gives us a sobering analysis of NEPA’s significance and its disappointing development over its five decades.  It started with the belief that economic growth, environmental protection and human welfare could live in productive harmony.

But the procedural hurdle of the Environmental Impact Statement changed the ways federal agencies made their plans, requiring interdisciplinary studies and inviting public comment, in order to protect what the law calls “productive harmony.”

It didn’t take long for the courts to make the goals of NEPA flexible so that by 1989 agencies were no longer forbidden to undertake unwise activities, but only uninformed ones.  Thus Environmental Impact Statements are required, and options laid out, but agencies don’t have to choose the best one.

And so it stands.  Agencies must still go through the costly and time-consuming processes of preparing Environmental Impact Statements.  They are still valuable, especially to environmentalists, as the discovery and explication of a region’s environmental characteristics is worthwhile just by itself.

But there are current attempts to gut the NEPA even further, for example, exempting the Forest Service from its rules.  They can argue that, underfunded and  understaffed as they are, they cannot afford the expense and the delay.  The counter to that argument is that a nation that values its environment should provide the resources to protect it. 

In closing we’ll quote NEPA’s opening section, which asserts that “ each person should enjoy a healthful environment, and each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.”

It’s time for  us to get together and add to our environmental responsibilities, that of reviving the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.