House Task Force Hears Testimony on Improving Decades-Old Environmental Law

Published August 1, 2005

A recently appointed task force of the Resources Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives is hearing testimony on the operation and potential improvement of a landmark environmental law.

Eighteen members of the Resources Committee have been appointed to a bipartisan Task Force on Improving the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The task force will conduct hearings across the United States, culminating in a report summarizing the findings of the hearings and suggestions for improving NEPA’s operation.

The statute was signed into law on January 1, 1970. It does not call for any particular area, such as water or air, to be regulated. Instead, it requires that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be completed when the federal government is involved with a project.

NEPA, according to Debra Struhsacker of the Women’s Mining Coalition, “is a procedural law that creates a process to seek public comments, consider alternatives, and disclose impacts.”

Analysis for Every Mortgage?

On June 16, the task force issued a statement on the operation of the law, stating, “Recently, in a lawsuit against Fort Huachuca, environmental groups have gone as far as suing the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Housing Authority for not completing a NEPA analysis before issuing each and every mortgage insurance and loan guarantee.”

The statement further noted the lawsuit “could dramatically affect the ability of low-income families and minorities to receive loans and insurance for homes.”

Litigation Preventing Restoration

The task force has held two public hearings, one on April 23 in Spokane, Washington and the other on June 18 in Lakeside, Arizona.

Many people representing business organizations, non-government organizations, and government agencies spoke at the public hearings. Representatives of the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity were invited to speak, but declined to participate.

Abigail R. Kimbell, regional forester for the USDA’s Forest Service, spoke at the Spokane hearing, testifying, “We have 44 projects in some stage of litigation right now. … Each time we go through the appeal process or the courts, much of our limited resources are employed to defend the decisions we feel are crucial to restoring ecosystems and addressing forest health concerns.

“Delays in restoration and forest health treatments compound the problem as more acres move into conditions that promote invasions of exotics, leave forests susceptible to insect and disease, and predispose ecosystems to unwanted wildfire,” said Kimbell.

Causing Forest Deterioration

At the Arizona meeting, Jim Matson, the Four Corners Representative of the American Forest Resource Council, said, “NEPA has evolved into a logjam of overwhelming scale and proportions. [It] is actually causing forest watersheds and habitats to deteriorate as a result of litigation, appeals, and gridlock.

“Without improvements in NEPA, including modernizing this common sense law and its regulations, I have little hope that our land managers will be able to get back to managing and protecting forests, key watersheds, critical wildlife habitats, rural communities and people,” Matson added.

Law ‘Hijacked’

“NEPA was not meant to hold up projects, but was meant to establish guidelines for projects,” said Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

“Dragged-out litigation should be eliminated,” Burnett said. “Challenges should be channeled and resolved in a prompt and succinct manner, with challengers getting only one bite at the apple.”

Struhsacker said at the Arizona hearing, “anti-development groups have hijacked NEPA by turning it into a process of conflict and confrontation rather than an opportunity for communication and collaboration, as Congress originally intended.

“Issues and concerns raised by local interests should be accorded more importance than comments from outside groups and individuals who are not directly affected by a proposed project or land use decision,” Struhsacker said, “because local people know what is best for their environment and their community.”

“Much like the Endangered Species Act, NEPA was passed more than 30 years ago and is in need of updating to meet our needs in the twenty-first century,” said Gretchen Randall, senior partner at Winningreen public policy consulting group. “At a minimum, Congress should examine NEPA and the laws passed since then, such as ESA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, and eliminate overlapping duplication in the legislation.”

Call for More Regulation

In a column published in the May 2005 Environmental Forum, Sharon Buccino of the Natural Resources Defense Council argued the current system is working well. She called for more, rather than fewer, procedural steps and analyses prior to obtaining NEPA clearance for forest service projects.

“We can do better [with NEPA],” Buccino wrote. “Better means improving public involvement, not curtailing it. It means doing more thorough analysis of cumulative and regional impacts, not less. It means doing more monitoring and data collection, not less. The statute does not need changing.”

Burnett countered, “When activist groups use NEPA as a barrier to challenge any and all development, the law and the system are being abused. NEPA should be returned to its original intent as a guidance statute employed, from both sides, in good faith.”

“While NEPA was passed with the best of intentions to make sure federal agencies looked at the environmental impact of their decisions, it has become a way for opposition groups to tie up projects in litigation and endless paperwork,” added Randall.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) is associate professor of political science and humanities at Pennsylvania’s Grove City College.