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Friday, May 06, 2005

Industries call for streamlining of aged federal NEPA policy

By JAMIE HENNEMAN Freelance Writer
Capital Press

Originally created to make businesses consider the environmental impacts of their projects, natural resources businesses are now saying that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is stagnating the health of the lands it was created to protect. At an April 23 meeting in Spokane, Inland Northwest businesses called for reform.

Hearing the testimony was a four-member Congressional NEPA task force that is charged with creating reform that will find a balance between the duty of providing sound stewardship of the environment while allowing natural resource businesses to remain solvent. It is a difficult and monumental task, especially when the discussions about NEPA are charged with emotion and driven by personal ideologies about the “environment.”

The April 23 meeting was no exception to this tenacious debate as speakers cited their concerns, support and suggestions regarding the NEPA document that was crafted by the federal government in 1969.

Of those presenting was Family Farm Alliance board member William Kennedy who said that NEPA has been ignored by state and federal agencies to the detriment of farmers.

Kennedy was one of the farmers making a living in the Klamath Irrigation District in Oregon in 2001 when the Bureau of Reclamation made the decision to turn off the irrigation to 170,000 acres of land.

The 2001 irrigation closure came after a 1997 lawsuit by water users demanding that BuRec complete an Environmental Impact Statement under NEPA because of changes in how the bureau delineated the use of irrigation waters.

“By 2001, four years had elapsed since the Bureau’s commitment to comply with NEPA and two years had passed since the Bureau represented to the court that it would complete an EIS for the long-term operation of the irrigation district,” Kennedy said. “However, that year the federal agencies sought to bypass both their legal duties to the water users and to NEPA, based on the provision of the Endangered Species Act.

“The result was the devastation of family farm ground that is still suffering the ramifications of the Bureau’s negligence regarding NEPA,” he added.

The doubling up and counter-action of similar environmental policies like the ESA (1973) has caused problems for the 36-year-old document that has since been followed by legislation like the clean water act (1977) and the clean air act (1970; 1990 revised.)

Pacific Seafood Group representative Craig Urness said that the doubling up of regulations has also made it difficult for fisheries to make sound decisions about harvesting.

“One of the problems with NEPA is that there have been other environmental acts passed since its creation, like the Magnuson-Stevens Act for fisheries, that have requirements that are analogous to NEPA,” said Urness. “So the requirements double up and overlap. The time frame for decision-making is so long that we are operating on outdated information in relation to fish-harvesting levels.”

Natural resource businesses also cited concerns about the laborious and vague process associated with NEPA that does not outline specific directions for companies.

Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company president Duane Vaagen noted that the time it takes to complete a NEPA often leaves salvageable timber to rot until it is no longer useful.

“When we are looking at trying to salvage burnt, dead or dying wood, we are looking at a minimum of two years before the NEPA is completed due to its policy structure, protests, lawsuits and analysis paralysis,” said Vaagen, whose lumber mill is located in Colville, Wash. “Burnt wood only has a commercial value for two years. It is a sad state of affairs when we now see that our company could operate solely on the dead and burned timber on the Colville National Forest without ever cutting a green tree, yet NEPA constrains federal land managers from restoring our national forests to benefit clean air, water and wildlife habitat while creating jobs in our communities.”

But despite the negative comments about NEPA, no group was asking that the policy be repealed, rather that it be streamlined for simpler, more efficient regulation.

All of the natural resource representatives testifying on April 23 made suggestions for how to improve NEPA, including a NEPA screening process, expediting the timber salvage review to six months to better rehabilitate forests, and improvements to the analysis and public participation regarding NEPA decisions.

Congressional Natural Resources Committee member Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) had several suggestions for those testifying, including a word of caution regarding how to address NEPA concerns.

“Basically this committee is here because we want to hear from the people about how this policy is working,” Gohmert said. “But I urge you to be careful with words and not give in to the temptation to encourage fear mongering to make your point. I think that all of us want to create a better place for our kids, so no matter what our opinion is, we have a common goal.”

The Congressional Natural Resources NEPA taskforce committee will be holding hearings throughout the U.S. this year in an effort to get feedback from businesses and citizens.

For more information about the Congressional NEPA reform hearings, visit www.resourcescommittee.house.gov.


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