Guest column: Trump’s changes to NEPA promote growth
When President Nixon enacted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) back in 1970, he did so with the best of intentions. The law was designed to simply help ensure that environmental considerations were taken into account when a major federal project was undertaken; it was not intended to be a systemic barrier to getting anything done.
Unfortunately, that is what it has since evolved into. It didn’t take very long before extremists within the environmental movement figured out that they could twist the law’s well-intentioned, if possibly naïve, provisions in service of their agenda – which was essentially to halt any economic activity they deemed unacceptable, which meant pretty much everything.
The radical environmentalist groups, backed up by their armies of attorneys and Washington D.C. lobbyists, quickly discovered that NEPA could be used effectively as a legal weapon against ranchers, local communities, energy developers, communications companies, virtually anyone who wished to do something on federal land, or hoped to see a federal-scale project through. The requirements matter how off-base they were. The result was that it began taking months, then years, and in some cases decades, just to complete all the studies and evaluations, and surveys that the act required.
One effect of all these added requirements was that the whole process became so hopelessly complicated and convoluted that it was nearly impossible for anyone to keep track of everything. Waiting in the wings were the environmental lawyers, teams of them, poring through NEPA analyses looking for the slightest technical violation, or some subjective hint that a particular survey or study was “flawed” – usually meaning that it failed to find a bad enough impact on whatever environmental condition it was looking at. So off to court the environmental lawyers go, suing over whatever vague “deficiency” they could conjure up, delaying whatever project they were targeting for more months or years.
They misused the NEPA process in other ways as well. Part of the process is democratic – the inclusion of a public comment period. Again, this was well-intentioned, a way to provide a voice and some input for the local communities. What it turned into was a bonanza and a government supplied soapbox for the national (and international) environmentalist lobby. Thousands of form letters would stream into the system, gathered up by the well-organized radical groups who made a living doing nothing else. Comments would come in from California and New York, and several from overseas. Public hearings became circuses, stacked with professional activists and the folks they bussed in.
Meanwhile, most of the people who actually had a stake in whatever project was under review – the local ranchers and farmers, business owners, truck drivers, laborers, waitresses and all manner of local working people – were too busy earning livings, producing valuable goods and services, paying taxes, and providing for their families to be able to take the time participate in what had become little more than an orchestrated show for the media.
Ultimately, the result of all this was that more times than not, nothing got done. Major infrastructure projects, most notably water storage, were tied up for years just in the NEPA study phase. Ranchers like myself were locked out of public grazing land, energy leases went undeveloped, roads went unbuilt, utility right of ways and broadband were never completed. Often, the delays just became too much and projects were scrapped altogether.
Who suffered the most from this were our local communities. The loss of jobs, tax revenue, and economic vitality caused by NEPA abuse are still being felt in Garfield County. The impacts from unnecessary delay or termination of major water storage projects could be felt for generations. While the radical special interest groups celebrate their NEPA victories, the local communities, families, farmers, and working people that NEPA was supposed to give a voice to suffer under its boot.
Fortunately, those local people finally have a champion in the White House. President Trump’s administration has announced that for the first time in forty years, NEPA is going to be reviewed, updated, and streamlined to prevent the abuses of the past and allow needed transportation, water, and other projects proceed in an environmentally responsible manner.
These proposed reforms are not about abandoning the environment, as the extremists cry. Farmers and ranchers like myself care for the environment for a living. We all want clean air and water, and reasonable conservation measures, and support a process for ensuring that. But the abuses that had become inherent in NEPA went well beyond reasonable environmental considerations, and instead served only as obstacles to responsible economic activity.
President Trump’s proposed NEPA update restores the program to its original intent and helps prevent it from being used by special interests against local communities.
Kelly Couey is a fourth-generation rancher in Silt.
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