What is NEPA anyway?

By Brittany Hallak

Signed into law in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA for short) requires federal agencies to: (1) assess the environmental impact of proposed action before said action can be taken and (2) allow for public engagement throughout the review of the proposed action. Given the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the USDA Forest Service’s implementation of NEPA review, it is important to understand how the NEPA review process is currently conducted.

The NEPA review process requires more analysis and takes longer to complete when a proposed federal action is found to have a significant affect (or impact) on the environment. Every proposed federal action begins at step one of the analysis, and if deemed necessary, must also undergo a second round of analysis, and in some cases, a third round of analysis.

1. The first level of NEPA analysis may result in a Categorical Exclusion, or CE for short. Simply, a CE applies to a federally proposed action if the action does not have a significant effect on the environment and/or if the action is needed to protect public health and safety. If a proposed project is granted a CE, NEPA review compliance is satisfied at this first step of analysis, exempting the action from further NEPA review and speeding up the timeline for completing CE projects. Particularly in cases of time-sensitive salvage and fuels reduction work, NASF is in strong support of granting CEs. To learn more about the benefits and importance of CEs, read our blog post.

2. If a CE does not apply to the proposed action under review, the proposal then must undergo an Environmental Assessment (EA). An EA will determine whether or not the proposed action can cause significant impact to the environment. If no significant impact to the environment is likely, the agency will issue a “finding of no significant impact” and carry on with the proposed action. An EA can take anywhere from one to three years to complete.

3. If an EA finds that the proposed action will have a significant effect on the environment, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be prepared. An EIS is a tool for decision making. It describes the positive and negative environmental effects of a proposed action and usually lists one or more alternative actions to those described in the EIS.

NEPA creates an important framework that decision makers can use to balance the effects of federal action on the human and natural environment. Contrary to popular belief, however, NEPA does not prohibit the federal government or its licensees/permittees from taking action that is deemed likely to affect the environment; it merely requires that the prospective impacts be understood and disclosed in advance.

With the NEPA review process, federal agencies provide Americans with necessary clarity and assurance that federal actions are safe for the environment or can be sufficiently mitigated. Expanding the use of CEs for critically important forest management projects does not detract from the intent of NEPA, and in fact, can support a healthier, more resilient environment.

Have questions about this post? Contact NASF Summer Intern Brittany Hallak at intern@stateforesters.org.