Breath of Clarity

NEPA and Visitor Use Impacts (Comment)

Original Post by John Glover:

The main strengths the NEPA process has in addressing visitor use impacts are the drafting of alternative actions and public comments. Agencies that conduct environmental reviews of actions that will have significant impacts must draft multiple alternatives, including a no action plan. During this process, agencies can decide if their action is really necessary, or if a no action alternative could be better. Additionally, because agencies have to manage for multiple uses, drafting multiple alternatives gives them an opportunity to prioritize different types of recreation. By drafting multiple alternatives and reviewing their environmental consequences, agencies may find activities they need to ban altogether. Furthermore, by allowing public commentary in the NEPA process, agencies open themselves to valid criticisms from their resource users. Agencies may make decisions that their users disagree with, and luckily the NEPA process gives them an opportunity to have their voices heard. Without this provision, agencies could make decisions that act against the interests of their users.

Conversely, the main problem with the NEPA process is that agencies are not mandated to make decisions in the best interest of the resources they manage or their resource users. After completing an environmental review, as long as their decisions do not violate major laws, the managing agencies can essentially do whatever they want. This could lead to parks being degraded against the interests of the public.

The NEPA process can be handled differently by different agencies, and even within agencies there is a lack of consistency. Managers have differing opinions on what the purpose of the NEPA process is altogether. Some managers just want to get the job done without any major public controversies or litigation. Others view the NEPA process as an unnecessary burden (Stern and Mortimer, 2009). Without the goals of the process clearly defined, the NEPA process becomes inconsistent and subject to influence from interest groups. Furthermore, because agency heads are politically appointed, then they can take steps to weaken the NEPA process for the wealthy.

NEPA needs to be improved to have stronger legislative teeth. Without a mandate that agencies make environmentally sustainable decisions, then the process will continue to be random and inconsistent. If managers can make any decision they want at the end of the process, then they will not always choose an option that benefits their resource or their resource users.

Reference List:

Stern, Marc J., Mortimer, Michael J. 2009 “Exploring National Environmental Policy Act Processes Across Federal Land Management Agencies.” Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-799. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 106 p.

Comment by Fenton Kay:

Well stated, John. If you were a recreation area manager for a Federal agency, how would you suggest implementing your final suggestion?

Comment by John Glover:

If I were a recreation managers, then I would have to make that decision myself. There are currently no directives from the President or legislation in NEPA that requires managers to make the most environmentally sustainable decision. As a manager, however, I would seek the classic definition of sustainability, which is the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people over the greatest amount of time possible.

This would mean I would try to allow for as much reasonable recreation on the land as possible, but I would also restrict recreation if it was necessary to preserve the resource.

My Comment:

Excellent post! I am particularly interested in the main problem with NEPA. I agree agencies are not mandated to make decisions in the best interest of the resources they manage. I found a paper by Anthony R. Raduazo in the Columbia Law Review about the CO2 monetization gap in NEPA reports. Specifically, the author examined the disparate treatment of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the regulatory cost–benefit analysis and the NEPA review contexts (Raduazo 2018). In Zero Zone, Inc. v. United States Department of Energy, the Seventh Circuit upheld the use of the social cost of carbon (SCC) when agencies consider GHG emissions in their cost–benefit analyses (Raduazo 2018). At the same time, courts have almost uniformly rejected challenges that agencies should use the SCC when conducting environmental impact statements under NEPA on grounds that directly contradict the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning (Raduazo 2018). This disparate treatment is problematic since NEPA covers a broader category of federal actions than does the regulatory cost–benefit analysis mandate, agencies assess the environmental consequences of a significant number of federal actions without utilizing the SCC (Raduazo 2018). From there, Raduazo (2018) examined the foreign-investment activities of the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) to demonstrate that it has contributed to poor decision making. Ex-Im is a major financier of fossil fuel projects abroad and does not currently utilize the SCC in assessing the climate effects of its activities (Raduazo 2018). Though Ex-Im’s activities are justified on economic grounds, the benefits of the program are a mirage—when the SCC is applied to these activities, the economic benefits of the program largely disappear (Raduazo 2018). Integration of the SCC into the NEPA review process is both normatively desirable and legally feasible (Raduazo 2018).


Raduazo, Anthony. 2018. “THE CO2MONETIZATION GAP”. Columbia Law Review. 118(2): 605-652.

Comment by Fenton Kay:

Great find and post, Mary. Thank you.