What We're Thinking

The National Environmental Policy Act as a Guide for Proper Planning

Posted on 10/22/2012 by Jason Thomas

In this current era of lengthy environmental regulations, it is hard to imagine a brief policy being passed by Congress. But the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, achieved sweeping reform in barely three pages. While it is clear that the authors intended to bring environmental issues into national focus, they could not have predicted that their little-noticed bill, aimed at federal government actions, would also give a voice to the budding conservation movement and lay the groundwork for best practices in project planning.

Four notable environmental policy giants of their day were among the contributors to this admirably concise law.  While NEPA was being debated by Congress in 1969, Senators “Scoop” Jackson of Washington and Edmund Muskie of Maine held lengthy hearings over the details of NEPA. Both men were directly responsible for language found in the original bill. Russell Train, widely seen as the father of NEPA, suggested elevating environmental oversight and coordination to the executive level.  Staff consultant Dr. Lynton Caldwell, hired by Train, laid the groundwork for the consideration of alternatives and the analysis of effects in what became the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

However much disagreement and debate there was over other details, these men did not question the importance of public participation. Robust engagement of the public and stakeholders is the hallmark of NEPA.  Sen. Jackson’s Conference Report, read into the Congressional record in December of 1969 states, “The cumulative influence of each individual upon the environment is of such great significance that every effort to preserve environmental quality must depend upon the strong support and participation of the public.”

Another significant legacy of NEPA is an emphasis on balancing environmental protection and economic growth.  This balance is evident in Section 101, sometimes referred to as the spirit of the law, as Congress instructs the government to “… create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.”  The word “productive” appears three times in similar context, showing no intent to limit growth, but rather to ensure that growth would be balanced by consideration of the human and natural environment. Four decades after its passage, the precept of productive harmony remains central to NEPA, even though its procedural requirements have been shaped by courts and implementing regulations.

We find inspiration in the historical context and in the idea that infrastructure projects, when planned properly and publicly, can induce economic development while coexisting with the natural and human environment. These fundamental concepts are the backbone for our planning and analysis process, whether or not a project is analyzed through NEPA. Balancing growth and conservation, like any worthwhile policy goal, benefits from broad public participation.  Designing for productive harmony requires a socially engaged process, so we also place a high value on all forms of engagement, coordination, and outreach. These are necessary ingredients for the successful development of any new project today.