Restoring Public Input and Strong Environmental Reviews to Federal Projects
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is the essential law outlining environmental review for public lands and rivers projects. Recent changes to rules governing implementation of the law significantly undermined the Act’s efficacy. The previous administration released new Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) rules which shortened the time frame for completing environmental studies, limited the types of projects subject to review, and no longer required federal agencies to account for a project’s cumulative effects on the environment, such as climate change. The rules, exempting a significant amount of projects from environmental review not only led to worse ecological outcomes, but severely restricted public input on Federal management decision-making. NEPA environmental reviews are the main opportunity for the public to find out about and comment on federal projects, even if their concerns are more shaped by recreation issues, such as maintaining access.
The new administration through the January 20th “Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis” has ordered a review of these changes to the CEQ NEPA regulations. Some states and environmental groups have already challenged this rulemaking in court, however this executive action has the power to restore public input in federal land management decisions and establish NEPA environmental reviews for projects where they should be required, in a more timely manner than the courts. Revisiting this rule guidance from the CEQ is a priority for American Whitewater and many other river stewardship, public land, and environmental justice advocates.
Projects with significant effects to whitewater rivers regularly are subject to the NEPA review process and this process in many cases is the main avenue in which American Whitewater and our community can intervene. Projects like the recently halted Oro Vista dredge mining proposal near the put-in for the classic Numbers run on the Arkansas River (CO) are regularly altered through the environmental review process when there’s an outpouring of concern from the public. Sometimes the agency reviewing a project may be unaware that boating is a valued activity on an effected river and public input can help detail not only how detrimental the potential effect of a project may be, but also enlighten them as to how cherished a river stretch may be for it’s myriad values, including recreation, scenery, solitude, wildlife etc. Take the currently proposed gold mine in the headwaters of the South Fork Salmon (ID) for instance. With over 3,000 comments from the paddling community alone (over 10,000 all together) in their initial public input process, the Forest Service is now well aware of how significant a whitewater resource they are managing and of the potential impact were the mine allowed to go forward.
The NEPA review process is a critical law that must be applied broadly to federal management decisions. Adequate time frames for completing studies, robust guidelines for projects subject to review, and accounting for cumulative impacts to the environment, such as climate change are in the boating communities and the public’s interest. We hope that these rules will be reviewed and revised in short order and that the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act will be restored to its proper place as one of the main safeguards for our country's public lands and waters.