Guest Opinion: Colorado must balance recreation and farming with NEPA Reform

By Bob Rankin and Jeff Rector

There are hopeful signs for Colorado’s economic prospects in 2020. The Centennial State is not far removed from a record tourism year and the recently relaxed trade tensions with China, Mexico, and Canada mean farmers and ranchers are optimistic about commerce opportunities. Now West Slope Coloradans have an opportunity to offer support for even greater enhanced tourism and agricultural growth by encouraging proposed National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reforms that aim to cut down on unnecessary delays to infrastructure projects – delays which have been a drag on tourism, agriculture and economic development.

Originally signed into law by President Nixon in 1970, NEPA requires agencies to conduct environmental reviews on proposed infrastructure projects. Since its signing, the statute has ballooned into burdensome regulation that delays projects and drives up costs. The Trump Administration’s Council on Environment Quality (CEQ) has recently identified a number of potential reforms.

In Colorado there is a productive working relationship between our tourism and agriculture industries. In fact, many of our operations dovetail closely to one another. Ranchers and farmers provide foodstuff for the many restaurants and tourist attractions while the outdoor community – hikers, bikers, and skiers – generate and spread demand for the agriculture industry. Similarly, the industries share vulnerabilities. For example, the Upper Fryingpan Vegetation Management Project would add to the beauty of Colorado by implementing a 1,631-acre vegetation and habitat resiliency program, insulating the land from external shocks and cultivate healthy game populations. As District Ranger Karen Schroyer noted “This project will provide forest products to local and regional industry while also improving forest resilience and habitat…” Unfortunately, the project has turned into a missed opportunity and is yet to get off the ground after three years in NEPA related litigation.

Other projects in Colorado and around the nation have fallen to a similar fate. For instance, water storage projects, which are so crucial to maintaining a sustainable long-term supply of water, are routinely consigned to languish for years in NEPA purgatory awaiting final approval. These delays often stretch unnecessarily into decades. The White River water storage project near Rangely is already taking years just to receive the necessary state approvals, before even getting to the NEPA analysis stage. With things as they currently are, the NEPA process could hold that particular project up for another decade or more.

To combat future delays to critical infrastructure projects like the White River storage project, the CEQ has proposed a slate of revisions to the NEPA statute aimed at protecting agencies’ attention to environmental stewardship while improving and streamlining the approval procedures. Specifically, the CEQ recommends implementing a two-year time limit for environmental impact statements and a one-year limit for less intensive assessments. Further, lead agencies are to strengthen their role as the primary authority on approval to cut down on disputes and delays between agencies. Updates to NEPA come on the back of some startling recent findings by the CEQ that A) the average environmental impact statement took 4.5 years; final environmental impact statements averaged 669 pages; and a fourth of environmental impact states took more than six years.

Welcoming NEPA reform can save projects in Colorado, foster growth for the agriculture and tourism industries, and provide for water storage infrastructure. Coloradans should be familiar with the I-70 Expansion Project. The $1.2 billion project to expand 12 miles of highway near Denver has only just begun construction after its environmental impact statement took 13 years and totaled nearly 16,000 pages. Tourism and agriculture industries will eventually both benefit from the I-70 Expansion, which will alleviate congestion for outgoing agricultural goods and incoming tourists, but a 13-year delay is unacceptable and costly for Coloradans.

At 50 years old, NEPA resembles burdensome and antiquated red tape. Coloradans’ support of the statute’s reform will bring about positive change to industries that have been hamstrung by delays, and will allow vital efforts like the White River water storage project to come to fruition in a reasonable period of time, while still providing for ample environmental review. Public comment on the rules remains open until March 10, and all Coloradans should join together to support a streamlined NEPA so that our state’s current and future development projects will benefit.

Bob Rankin is Colorado State Senator for Senate District 8, which includes Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, New Castle, Silt and Rifle. Jeff Rector is a County Commissioner for Rio Blanco County.

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