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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Environmental Reassessment

Air Date: Week of

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Margie Kriz, reporter with the National Journal, discusses the Bush administration plans to modify the National Environmental Policy Act.



CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. If you want to use federal resources to change the physical landscape, you probably have to file an environmental impact statement. That’s the law under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Now, the act doesn’t stop you from building a highway or cutting trees in a national forest, but it does require that you tell the public about the environmental consequences. Activists have become adroit at using the Environmental Policy Act to delay controversial federal projects. And the Bush administration says these lawsuits are often a waste of time and money.

Margie Kriz, reporter for the National Journal, says the administration wants to change the law in two major ways.

KRIZ: They want to speed up the environmental assessments that are done now. In some cases, it makes an awful lot of sense, if you’re not using, say, computer technology. They’re saying “Let’s get in there and put the new technology to use.”

The second thing they want to do is they want to say that on some projects maybe you don’t have to do as thorough a—the most extensive kind of environmental assessment. Maybe you can do just a shortened version. Or, in some cases , they want to eliminate it altogether. They say that it’s just not necessary for things like when a forest fire has gone through and burned out the forest. Perhaps you can have a whole category of logging in that area that wouldn’t necessarily have to go through a full environmental impact statement. So, basically, what they’re doing is rather quietly and systematically scaling back the program.

CURWOOD: At the end of the day, though, let’s say the project does an environmental impact statement. It says that the thing is not friendly in terms of what the environmentalists would like to see, but once the state, once the impact study is done, the project can go ahead if the agency wants to.

KRIZ: It certainly can unless the environmentalists—and this is one thing that they do time and again—is they pair it with another law, let’s say the Endangered Species Act. So, if you say some critter is going to be affected by this project so you can’t violate that law. They use this law, the National Environmental Policy Act, in tandem with other laws to try and stop things. But I’ll tell you, the NEPA does not require them to stop even if they say it’s going to do a horrible job on the environment.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about some of the changes that the Bush administration would like to make in terms of management of the National Forest System. What are they talking about and how would it work?

KRIZ: Well, there’s 153 national forests, and right now all of them are governed by a National Forest Plan. It’s kind of like a blueprint for how the land is going to be used. Is some of it going to be for recreation? Is some of it going to be logging? How much of it is going to be held as sort of wild land? And every fifteen years they have to be rewritten.

Right now, they’re going through the process of looking at these plans and the Bush administration wants to change the way the environmental impact statements apply to them. In the past, because you were riding the original forest management plan, they had to go through an extensive assessment on the environmental side. But now, they’re saying that maybe some small changes, maybe even an entire rewrite of the plan, could be done without a National Environmental Impact Statement.

CURWOOD: What do the critics of these changes say?

KRIZ: Well, they are afraid that the Bush administration, they accuse the Bush administration of erring on the side of industry, of making it easier for industry to develop either the federal lands or to get money to build highways and other projects that federal funds are used for. They feel like this is further example of the administration erring on the side of business.

CURWOOD: And why does the Bush administration say it needs to do this?

KRIZ: The Bush administration says that there’s too many lawsuits, there’s too many delays in building highways and allowing more energy exploration on federal lands. They want to get in there and they want to move these things faster and they feel like the whole process has been abused by the environmental community. Too many lawsuits, too many delays, costs too much money. They say it’s a good government thing that they’re doing to try and speed this up.

CURWOOD: Bring me up to date, Margie, on the new balance of power in Congress and questions around the National Environmental Policy Act. In the past, we saw that some of the proposed changes from the White House were blocked by that Democratic majority in the Senate. How does the new balance of power affect that?

KRIZ: Well, the committee in the Senate in particular that is responsible for it, the Senate has changed from, or will be changing in January from Democratic control to Republican control. At that point, you’re going to have a Republican from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, will be the head of the Environment and Public Works Committee. He has control over this law. He is more inclined, I think, to err on the side of business. He’s more conservative.

I don’t think they’re going to rewrite the National Environmental Policy Act, but he and other conservatives in Congress are going to—they’re going to be more sympathetic to the Bush administration’s approach of sort of scaling it back.

CURWOOD: What might the impact be?

KRIZ: It will be challenged in court by any number of lawsuits by the environmental community. But in the end, if this rollback happens, you could end up seeing some of the environmental impact statements will be a lot faster and, perhaps, more professionally done. But there will be fewer of them done and, therefore, you could end up seeing more environmental degradation with less ability to challenge it by the public.

CURWOOD: Margie Kriz is a reporter with the National Journal. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

KRIZ: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Essevbar, “Jabel SooTool” (Magna, 1996)]



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