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What is NEPA?

Daniel Mccullough

A proposed development project undergoes a detailed process to receive approval and to determine its potential environmental impacts. Assessment of these impacts is done through the National Environmental Policy Act, usually referred to as NEPA.

“It's basically a pros and cons analysis. I know sometimes people will sit down when they're making a decision and say, Well, if I decided this way, then this is what's going to happen. And that'll be good. And if I, this might happen, and that wouldn't be so good. And if I make this other decision, it'll be a little different in this way.”

Stephanie Howard is the Branch Chief over NEPA and GIS for the Vernal Field Office in Utah’s Green River District of the Bureau of Land Management.

There are different kinds of NEPA assessments done for different scales of projects. However, they all follow the same steps: identifying the project’s goal and potential alternatives, referred to as a purpose in need, exploring environmental impacts of the project and alternatives, and finally, determining the end results of the project or environmental effects.

Howard explained there are actually three levels of NEPA depending on the scope of the project, from low-impact and routine to potentially having a severe impact.

“There's the categorical exclusion, which is the very routine projects, there's an environmental assessment, they're a little bit more complicated documents where we haven't done a lot of them, or we just don't have a categorical exclusion for them yet…and then the third type of document we have is an environmental impact statement.”

An Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, is a detailed assessment of environmental impacts that’s conducted when a project is expected to significantly alter the environment. Complicated proposals or those that may impact sensitive species, like the Utah Lake dredging and development project and the Willow Lakes housing development in south Logan, often require an EIS.

In order to make the process more transparent, EIS findings must be open for public comments for 45 days before the statement is finalized.

Throughout the NEPA process, there are 3 different periods to gather public input Howard said.

“we need to make sure that the, the public has an adequate chance to weigh in, and that we understand their questions and take into account their information”

The first opportunity for public involvement is referred to as the scoping period. It functions like a brainstorming session where multiple agencies and the public can suggest data to incorporate into the decision, alternative options or impacts to consider. Then there is the public comment period where an agency, like the BLM, puts out a document including all the information from the scoping period that the public can review and give feedback on.

“And we'll take their feedback from that comment period, revise the document into a final version, and then write a decision. And we will release that final document, either with or without the decision to the public.” Explained Howard.

And then the final period is either an appeal or protest where the public gets a third chance to review the document and comment.

Few NEPA proposals get rejected outright, but when they are, Howard said there are a handful of reasons.

“One of them is we lack funding, one of them is it doesn't meet the mission or some other management goals that we have. Sometimes we don't have the staff to do a project. And sometimes the project's just not a priority.”

If the project ultimately doesn’t meet the BLM’s goals, or has insurmountable obstacles, the BLM will issue a no action decision, meaning they won’t move forward with it.

Current EISs open for public comment in Utah:;jsessionid=FE343AC2DA93C56A8D9A6920B77352DD?search=&__fsk=1714277247#results

Ellis Juhlin is a science reporter here at Utah Public Radio and a Master's Student at Utah State. She studies Ferruginous Hawk nestlings and the factors that influence their health. She loves our natural world and being part of wildlife research. Now, getting to communicate that kind of research to the UPR listeners through this position makes her love what she does even more. In her free time, you can find her outside on a trail with her partner Matt and her goofy pups Dodger and Finley. They love living in a place where there are year-round adventures to be had!
Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.