The first aspect of the act that surprised me is its length. It seems short, considering its importance. From there, I wonder about the benefits and negatives of it being such a short act in terms of its impact on achieving balance in ecosystem processes. It is useful that it outlines all the dates of amendments. Researchers can link the dates to events and determine how the events impacted the change in legislation. It can empower policy analysts to recognize characteristics of events that actually result in alteration of legislation. I am surprised the act attempts to establish a national policy for the environment because both the nation and environmental issues are so broad. It seems to be a grand endeavor to establish any act that can encompass all of it. I am also surprised the Senate and House were able to agree on such a wide-scale piece of legislation to pass it. The two government bodies have trouble coming to consensus on other more specific and less important acts but were somehow able to unite here. I also am surprised the writers chose to phrase the purpose to be encouraging productive and enjoyable harmony between man and the environment. I wish the writers expanded on the definition of productive harmony. The term encourage suggests the act is weakly enforced. Further, the purpose outlines that the act promotes efforts instead of, for example, requiring action. I am also surprised that the purpose explicitly outlines a goal is to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources. I appreciate the act’s high regard for research in itself.
In Title 1, I am surprised the act states that the government must use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, to promote the general welfare of man. This is particularly noteworthy because, in the purpose section, the writers stated that preventing or eliminating damage to the environment and biosphere go hand in hand with stimulating the health and welfare of man. Additionally, the requirement to fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations would involve a lot more priority placed on enhancing environmental health than is currently in place. It points to the general high ambition that the act presents. I am also shocked that it takes on more of an environmentally-focused approach than a multiple use perspective. For example, it mentions the aim to attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation. It seems to hold more so a zero tolerance policy for environmental degradation instead of weighing the pros and cons of a choice. Also, I am surprised that it calls on citizens to be responsible to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment because it seems as though the act should only be outlining government obligations and assigning managers with responsibility. Additionally, I am surprised that the act values unquantifiable values in a document that is so official and would therefore presumably have a numerical foundation. Similarly, the act mandates that reports include any adverse effects which cannot be avoided should a proposal be implemented. I am surprised the writers care so much about factors that they cannot measure, address and control. Finally, I am surprised that the act brings attention to the irreversible commitments of resource which would be involved in a proposed action should it be implemented because it seems as though governmental bodies typically treat wild places as if human impact is reversible. The shift in attitude that NEPA reflects brings hopefulness for the future.
Environmental Protection Agency. “National Environmental Policy Act”
Comment by Fenton Kay:
Mary, what a wonderful panoply of surprises. I too was surprised when the act was passed – I was a biology undergrad at that time. Books like Silent Spring played a huge role in the ESA’s enactment. The other part – the politics – was President Nixon needing desperately to do something to win back support ( Viet Nam was not popular) – the batch of environmental laws he signed reflect that necessity. You were surprised by a multitude of items – what things did not surprise you, or perhaps just weren’t there for you? What might you have included in the act?
I can imagine, as a biology undergrad, NEPA’s passing supported a change in approach to projects. It also is interesting that the need for a politician to gain popularity enables the passing of important acts such as NEPA. Then, it eventually results in all the environmental research advancements that the act has provided over the years. There were definitely aspects of the act that did not surprise me. For example, it makes sense that the act established a council to carry out its tenants. However, the act did not explicitly outline how the members of the council are going to collaborate. It did not explain potential challenges to collaboration amongst the council members that may arise and how to combat those difficulties. Similarly, I am not surprised the act declares its purpose. However, I do not feel as though it goes into enough detail regarding ways to achieve the purpose. I was also not surprised that the act left out the potential valuable contributions that tribes could make to achieve the purpose. I would have included the direct mentioning of tribes in Sec. 101 [42 USC § 4331] (a). Also, I would have expanded Sec. 102 [42 USC § 4332] part (c) so that it went into detail about required characteristics of the five listed criteria included in the statement by the responsible official. That way, there would be less variance amongst NEPA project reports.
Environmental Protection Agency. “National Environmental Policy Act”.
Comment by Fenton Kay:
Excellent points, Mary. Some of those have come to the fore in discussions about the future of NEPA and amendments to the act. I must admit that I have not heard the issue regarding the tribes come to the fore. I have been involved in some NEPA work on housing projects in Dinétah (the Navajo Reservation). The Diné have established regulations that call out NEPA-type analyses for their home-grown projects, and because of BIA’s role in the management of the land, NEPA is required for some projects that are Fed funded or require Fed licensing. So, at least, in this case, Native Americans are following pretty much the same rules as the balance of the country.
Comment by Brendan Witt:
I agree with you on many fronts that I was surprised by many aspects of NEPA including its length and its lack of specificity when directing how considerations of environmental quality should be acted upon. In a previous class, we discussed at length how NEPA has ultimately been viewed as “a procedural, rather than a substantive statute” (Slazman and Thompson 2014, 335) through judicial review. I think this lends to your observation that NEPA doesn’t go into enough detail on how agencies and the CEQ should go about achieving the purpose of the act to “prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man” (US Congress 1969). Maybe it is because it has been seen as primarily procedural and not as requiring specific, substantive actions that Stern and Mortimer noted that many respondents in their study saw the NEPA process as an end in itself, rather than a means to informing more environmentally conscious decisions (Stern and Mortimer 2009, 20). Stern and Mortimer also found that some respondents found NEPA’s reporting requirements to be a way to justify greater environmental impacts of decisions (Stern and Mortimer 2009, 14). This seems to be counter to the purpose that you so eloquently outline as a benefit above. Given this, do you think the Act needs to be amended to include greater requirements to protect the environment in order to fulfill its purpose? Or do you think that could be accomplished through a tightening of CEQ guidelines? Ultimately, do you think NEPA is a strong enough act to guide natural resource managers to protect environmental quality as you mention above?
Thanks for your thoughts on this!
Salzman, J. and Thompson, B. 2014. Environmental Law and Policy. 4th ed. St. Paul, MN: Thomson Reuters/Foundation Press.
Stern, Marc J., Michael J. Mortimer. 2009 “Exploring National Environmental Policy Act Processes Across Federal Land Management Agencies.” Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.
US Congress. 1969. National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. 91st Cong.