40 years of success stories with NEPA

Dixie National Forest. Photo: U.S. Forest Service

2010 marks the 40th anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Over the last 40 years, NEPA has brought about what one commentator describes as a “revolutionary change in governmental decision-making”. But just what sort of change and what impact has it had on you and I, and our environment? A recently released report, NEPA Success Stories: Celebrating 40 Years of Transparency and Open Government, answers just these questions.

The report contains 13 vignettes that describe real world, real people examples of how NEPA has improved our communities, our health and our special places for the better. NEPA has had expansive effects, ranging from protection of important wetlands from road construction, to safeguarding a community’s drinking water from dangerous uranium mill wastes, to preservation of one of the nation’s last historic brick highways.

One story that I found particularly heartening and illustrative was the U.S. Forest Service’s use of NEPA in making its decision to reassess the maze of roads that had proliferated in the Dixie National Forest in southern Utah. The remarkable part of this story is not so much that the Forest Service decided to close inappropriate roads, but that the closure was met with wide-ranging acceptance from all types of forest users.

The Dixie National Forest contains more than 2 million acres of deep canyons, giant ponderosa pines, and red sandstone towers. During its review of the Forest’s roads (many of which were unauthorized roads created by frequent motorized off road vehicle travel), the Service wanted a way to engage all users — motorized, non-motorized, backcountry horseman, bikers — and avoid polarizing controversy. The Forest managers found just what they were looking for in NEPA.

While it would have been sufficient for the Forest Service to apply just those minimum procedures required by NEPA, they instead took heed of Congress’s instructions to “encourage and facilitate public involvement” and took a number of steps beyond what was minimally required. The Forest Service developed an interactive public web site with information about the roads and routes throughout the forest, held numerous public meetings where Forest Service staff consulted with individuals about the closing or retaining of specific routes, and extended the NEPA process an additional year in order to more fully discuss individual comments they had received from the public.

Because so many of those people who had a stake in the final decision were allowed to meaningfully participate in the process, the Forest Service’s final rule — which closed 48% of the 5,200 miles of the Forest’s roads and routes and 73% of unauthorized routes — was met with broad acceptance within the community.

By taking the purposes behind NEPA true to heart, the managers of the Dixie National Forest provided a meaningful forum for public participation, and, more importantly, collaboration. Just as Congress envisioned 40 years ago, NEPA, when properly implemented, truly does lead to more informed and improved government decision-making.

I encourage you to take a look at the report and see how other agencies across the country are using NEPA to better their own decision-making. And remember, NEPA gives each of us the opportunity to directly participate in government decisions that affect our environment — take advantage of it!