What do whales off the Pacific Coast, fire-blackened forests in
Colorado, and farmers in Oregon's Klamath Basin have in common? All
are involved in lawsuits centered on the National Environmental
Policy Act (NEPA) - the most sweeping of all US environmental laws.
This means they're also involved in a political confrontation
over the future of a law that the Bush administration wants to rein
in and environmentalists are fighting to preserve.
Signed into law 32 years ago by Richard Nixon, NEPA has been
called "the Magna Carta of environmental laws." It's championed by
activists who use it as a legal lever to expose - and in some cases
halt - environmentally damaging development proposals. But
developers see it as an unfair roadblock to legitimate projects. And
it's a source of frustration for some government-agency officials.
They complain that the law produces "analysis paralysis," preventing
them from effectively managing hundreds of millions of acres of
Under NEPA, federal agencies have to study all the environmental
impacts that every proposed federal project might have. That
includes deciding whether the Navy can boom the depths of the sea
with advanced sonar, figuring out how to repair the more than 6
million acres of federal land that burned this summer, and making
Solomon-like allotments of scarce water to farmers and fish
threatened with extinction.
Agencies must gather public comment and consider the alternatives
before going ahead with any project. In essence, it's a kind of
"sunshine law," opening the political process involving
environmental decisions to all Americans. Anyone - from a single
grass-roots conservationist to the powerful Sierra Club with its own
lawyers - can delay (if not squelch) a development project by filing
Now, even as courts look likely to settle some of the political
debates that have arisen as a result of the law, the Bush
administration wants to streamline NEPA.
Earlier this year, the White House Council on Environmental
Quality (CEQ) set up a task force of federal agency officials whose
goal, says CEQ chairman James Connaughton, is to "move federal
environmental analysis and NEPA documentation into the 21st
century." This process is expected to take several months, and it
draws heavily on public comment from a wide range of interests that
could be affected.
Not surprisingly, foresters, shareholder-owned utilities,
homebuilders, highway officials, and other industry leaders whose
work affects the environment have advocated reform of NEPA. …