Ann Notthoff is California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.

Viewpoints: Senate set to gut nation's key law that safeguards the environment

Published: Sunday, Mar. 31, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 31, 2013 - 7:17 am

When the U.S. military wanted to add more low-level training flights over Joshua Tree National Park, it first undertook an environmental review to assess the impact on the park's 1 million annual visitors, who were already complaining about fighter jets roaring over campgrounds and picnic areas.

Following extensive public comment and detailed consultation with the Park Service, the military came up with a new flight path that not only avoided most of the sensitive parts of the park, but also allowed the pilots to fly lower than before.

Result: a better park experience for visitors and better training for our military.

This happy win-win came about thanks to one of the nation's most important laws to safeguard our quality of life, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which called for the military's review. Known as the "green Magna Carta," NEPA was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority and signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970.

In the four decades since, NEPA has protected our health, our environment and our right to be heard on decisions that affect our communities, our livelihoods and our future. It promotes responsible use of our natural resources and lands by requiring major government projects to document the risks of development and insisting that we all work together with affected communities to find the best way with the least adverse impact. At the core, it's about government transparency and accountability.

NEPA's common-sense premise is simple: When the federal government undertakes or approves a major project – a dam, a highway, a power plant – it should check to make sure that the project won't have substantial adverse consequences for the environment. An initial Environmental Impact Statement discloses the risks and gives the public a chance to voice objections, suggest improvements and propose alternatives. Agencies are required to heed this input. Time and again the result has been just as the law intended – a better-designed project with less impact and more public support.

Yet some in Congress want to gut this fundamental right to know. They have attacked the act head-on, and they've launched back-door assaults on NEPA through other legislation.

Last year's transportation bill sharply limited NEPA review of major road projects, and now a similar ploy is afoot within the huge Water Resources Development Act, co-authored by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and California Sen. Barbara Boxer, to effectively roll back other essential NEPA safeguards.

Last week, the Senate Public Works committee approved bill language that strikes at the core of NEPA by sharply tilting the scales toward approval of projects, regardless of potential environmental damage. It sets unreasonably short deadlines for completing reviews, which will inevitably bias agency officials toward rubber-stamping projects to avoid the bill's harsh new fines.

In California, we've faced similar attacks to our state's answer to NEPA, the California Environmental Quality Act. For more than 40 years CEQA has protected the public's right to clean air and water and allowed the public unfettered access to our state's iconic natural landscapes. With CEQA and NEPA, the public's right to know and voice their opinion is always the right course of action to determine the future of our communities and country.

The full Senate should reject this effort to undermine NEPA when the Water Resources Development Act comes to the floor. Proponents say they're just "streamlining" NEPA, but in fact they are steamrolling over the public's right to full participation in government decisions.

NEPA is sound policy that has protected American places iconic and obscure, from California's redwood forests to Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. It established the United States as an environmental leader and has been emulated worldwide. We need to keep it that way.

Ann Notthoff is California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.

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