Breath of Clarity

NEPA and Visitor Use Impacts

How do different agencies view NEPA?

Stern and Mortimer (2009) explored current conditions considering that broad discretion is granted at all levels throughout federal land management agencies regarding compliance with NEPA. The authors highlighted a lack of consistency not only between, but within, agencies with regard to how NEPA is perceived and implemented (Stern and Mortimer 2009). Many struggled defining the role of NEPA in the decision making process. For some, NEPA and the decision making process were one in the same (Stern and Mortimer 2009). At the other extreme, some felt the NEPA process should be entirely separate from decision making (Stern and Mortimer 2009). Another area holding variability in beliefs about NEPA surrounded the issue of determining the appropriate form of documentation. There is controversy in terms of whether environmental assessments or environmental impact statements should be utilized (Stern and Mortimer 2009). Other issues of disagreement pertain to the division of labor within interdisciplinary teams, interagency coordination, alternatives development, and public involvement (Stern and Mortimer 2009). The research highlights pathways of inquiry about a course for future implementation of the act’s requirements.

What effect does this have on management?

Stern and Mortimer (2009) explained positively viewed practices uncovered in interviews with agency personnel on 10 NEPA processes including temporarily relieving interdisciplinary team members of other tasks to focus on a particular NEPA process, using a dedicated staff writer to orchestrate completion of NEPA documents, more direct incorporation of U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff onto interdisciplinary teams, and early and informal public involvement. However, variable degrees of success were noted with the regard to centralization and outsourcing of functions (Stern and Mortimer 2009). Drawing upon central offices for specific subject matter expertise and to staff ID teams was generally viewed in a positive light (Stern and Mortimer 2009). At the same time, relying on centralized teams to code public comments more commonly caused problems for interdisciplinary teams (Stern and Mortimer 2009). Contractors were generally seen to be most useful when employed to complete discrete analytical tasks (Stern and Mortimer 2009). Agencies viewing NEPA differently leads to unclear standards for implementing requirements, as well as a lack of shared vision regarding what successful NEPA processes should accomplish (Stern and Mortimer 2009).

How do the examples show the strengths and weaknesses of NEPA in addressing visitor use impacts?

There are two key aspects of the assessment at Chaco Culture National Historical Park that stuck out to me as abiding to NEPA’s tenants. One is that the document describes four alternatives to managing visitor use (National Park Service). Additionally, it depicts the impacts on resources that the place would endure as a result of implementing each alternative (National Park Service). It also considers the long-term consequences of each alternative as it explores 15-20 years into the future (National Park Service). However, for example, when explaining alternative 2, there is no timeline outlining when the reservation system would begin (National Park Service). It is based upon need with a definition that the authors do not explicitly mention. One strength of the document is that it does specifically outline how the public would comment on the plan. The fact that NEPA requires public involvement encourages thorough efforts to generate citizen participation in the process. Also, requiring the NPS to evaluate comments from other natural resource managers, such as other federal bodies and local businesses, brings the strength in providing a wide array of feedback from many different types of perspectives. The interdisciplinary characteristic of NEPA was a strength in this case because it resulted in alternatives approaching the situation from various angles. Each alternative had a unique approach to visitor use management strategies: visitor knowledge, group management, and individual visitor access (National Park Service). It is interesting to compare different types of tactics, side by side.


National Park Service. “Chaco Culture National Historical Park Environmental Assessment.” Accessed April 27, 2021.

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:

Mary, under NEPA, an EA is supposed to determine whether an EIS is required. Do you think that CEQ guidelines should be modified to make that requirement more explicit? As it stands, many agencies determine that an EA is all that is necessary before they ever do the study or analysis.

My Comment:

Yes, CEQ guidelines should make an EIS required. Davide Geneletti (2015) emphasized one of the main gaps in current EA research is the limited development of analytical methods to predict and assess environmental effects. He argued the analytical content of EA is often disappointedly low, and the assessment of impacts is still largely based on general statements (Geneletti 2015). He went on to suggest future research should be directed at innovating methods, by promoting the use of spatially-explicit and quantitative approaches, which can be based on advances in relevant disciplines and the increasing availability of data and technology (Geneletti 2015). Some of the relevant disciplines include health, land take, ecosystem fragmentation and energy needs and supply (Geneletti 2015). More efforts need to be devoted to the improvement of the actual predictions of effects (Geneletti 2015).

Additionally, Dawn Reeves (2015) addressed the discrepancy between projects as a result of not having more explicit requirements. EPA comments on federal agencies’ environmental reviews appear to align with the findings of an academic survey that shows widely uneven treatment of how agencies assess and adapt projects to address climate impacts under NEPA, including many agencies that did not alter projects because of such impacts (Reeves 2015). A formal, explicit guideline is required to make federal agency reviews coherent. In a webinar put on by the American Bar Association, a representative from Columbia Law School highlighted that, even in the case of an EIS, it is still quite rare for agencies to accurately incorporate knowledge derived from the impact statement into final decisions about the project design, selection of alternatives, or mitigation measures (Geneletti 2015). The survey from the school’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law found that only 15 parent of 117 environmental reviews from 2012-2014 suggested that climate considerations influenced final decisions for how to proceed with action (Geneletti 2015). Also, according to the survey, while 92 percent of EIS for electric generation projects included some sort of discussion of how climate change could impact the project, only 25 percent of transportation EIS did the same and only 2 percent of those indicated that the climate analysis had any bearing on final decisions about location or design of infrastructure (Geneletti 2015). The author goes on to explain how an exemplary BLM project in Oregon can be used as a model. Specifically, EPA praised BLM’s discussion of the forest plan’s impact on carbon storage and greenhouse has emissions (Geneletti 2015). The review also addressed interaction between climate change and BLM management and the potential effects of alternatives in adapting to climate change (Geneletti 2015). Further, the EIS cited scientific studies of climate impacts on natural resources that include various recommended actions that reduce existing stresses and increase resilience to climate change (Geneletti 2015). EPA said that the analysis did demonstrate that active management could provide opportunities to implement climate change adaptive strategies (Geneletti 2015). CEQ guidelines should be modified to require all projects to achieve a standard that the exemplary projects exhibit so that there is not so much inconsistency leading to insufficiency.


Geneletti, Davide. 2015. “Research in Strategic Environmental Assessment Needs to Better Address Analytical Methods”. Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management. 17(1): 1-7.

Reeves, Dawn. 2015. “EPA Comments Underscore Uneven Climate Treatment In NEPA Reviews”. Inside EPA’s Clean Air Report. 26(22): 33-34.

Comment by Fenton Kay:

Great response, Mary. Thank you for the current information regarding climate change in NEPA documentation. Times have changed in that regard and for the better, I think. The difficulty I see in setting firm guidelines is the tendency for lawyer-types to over-generalize when preparing legislation. Requiring proponents/EIS/EA-writers to use rigorous methods for analysis is good, but care must be taken to account for situations where data is hard to get. I think about the difficulty faced in the Tongas forest when they tried to get a handle on puffin (I hope I have the right bird here) numbers breeding in the forest.

My Comment:

Yes, it is clear that NEPA is getting more strict as time goes on. However, yes, there is a ton of vague language in the act. I figure the need to have the multiple use approach to forming legislation is the factor that results in such vague language. Since NEPA needs to satisfy such a side variety of stakeholders, it is safer to be vague in writing the legislation. Good point in saying that there are situations where data is hard to get. The last thing environmental professionals would want is for a project to not move along to fruition just because there was not enough data to get a NEPA report approved.