5 Wildlife Wins Delivered by the National Environmental Policy Act

Whether it’s protecting mule deer in Colorado, moose in Montana, elk in Wyoming, salmon in California or blue herons in Michigan, a law that was signed by President Richard Nixon 50 years ago deserves credit for protecting the environment and giving people the opportunity to speak up in support of wildlife.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was one of the first laws to establish a national framework for protecting public safety, wildlife and the environment. It is based on a very simple idea: before deciding whether or how to proceed with a major federal action, federal agencies must analyze the potential environmental and public health impacts and gather input from members of the public. 

In short, NEPA mandates careful and informed decision making. Since NEPA was adopted, more than two and a half million projects have been evaluated including highway construction, military installations, oil pipelines, and mining, drilling and logging operations. The law has been so successful, more than 100 other nations adopted similar policies. NEPA is the foundation of reasonable, balanced, and transparent protections for the environment. 

Now the Trump Administration wants to rollback these protections. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has called it the largest regulatory rollback affecting “virtually every significant decision by the federal government that affects the environment.”

The proposal means that public input would be severely reduced and that major projects could be rushed through an approval process without giving appropriate consideration to air, water, land, wildlife and public health impacts and without giving a voice to those communities affected by such impacts 

The NEPA process has protected communities and helped local economies thrive by making sure projects don’t contaminate water supplies, destroy wildlife habitat or degrade natural landscapes which fuel robust outdoor recreation industries. Rolling back these protections makes no environmental, moral or economic sense.  


Here are five examples of how the NEPA process has helped wildlife, while also helping local communities and local economies.

 Oil & Gas Leasing on the Roan Plateau and the Thompson Divide in Colorado

A dozen years ago the Interior Department tried to issue oil and gas leases in the Roan Plateau and the Thompson Divide in Colorado. The Roan is home to some of the country’s largest mule deer and elk herds while genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout live in the streams throughout the area. 

Rio Grande cutthroat trout of the Pecos strain. Credit: Craig Springer/USFWS
Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Credit: Craig Springer/USFWS.

The Thompson Divide provides habitat for a sizeable portion of the state’s elk and black bear populations. These two regions are hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation meccas that help contribute to the nearly $7 billion outdoor recreation economy in northwest Colorado. Local communities knew that oil and gas development in this area would destroy parts of this incredible place. They used the NEPA process to speak out about how drilling would negatively impact the water, wildlife and outdoor recreation opportunities in the region. The Department of Interior ultimately cancelled the oil and gas leases.

Highway Expansion in Western Montana

In the 1990s, the Montana Department of Transportation wanted to widen US Highway 93 from two lanes to five lanes along a 56-mile segment that led toward Glacier National Park.  Using NEPA, members from the local tribal communities and citizens of nearby towns spoke up with concerns about wildlife, cultural treasures, and public safety. Every year moose, deer, bears and mountain lions were killed by motorists along this stretch of roadway. The citizens proposed creative solutions for the highway expansion which resulted in 41 wildlife crossing structures, wildlife fencing and a rerouting around a sensitive wetland area.  The highway project has become a model for other construction projects near migration corridors and shows how collaboration and wise investment can help protect motorists and wildlife.

Energy Exploration near Clarks Fork in Wyoming

In 2004, energy developers wanted to conduct seismic surveys on BLM and Forest Service land surrounding Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River, the state’s only designated Wild and Scenic River. The proposal involved putting explosive charges into 3,420 holes in a 47-mile area. A bipartisan group of property owners and other concerned citizens spoke up using the NEPA process and said the project failed to consider how these explosions would affect scarce water resources, elk and mule deer populations, and outdoor recreation.  That input led the BLM to switch to a new survey technology which mitigated the damaging effects, protected wildlife, tribal sites, private property rights and water resources.

Elk. Credit: Steve Perry.

Dredging a Lagoon in California

In 2006, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers proposed to dredge nearly 14 million cubic yards of sediment from the Bolinas Lagoon, located just 15 miles northwest of San Francisco.  The area provides rich habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl and fish. Endangered steelhead and coho salmon pass through the lagoon on their journey upstream to spawn. Using the NEPA process, a team of scientists, community members and state agency representatives discovered that the plan would have resulted in increased siltation and would have degraded the lagoon’s water quality.  The plan was cancelled saving taxpayers $133 million. The coalition of stakeholders then devised a restoration and management plan that was put in place. The lagoon remains one of the most pristine tidal lagoons in California.

Highway Construction in Michigan

In the early 1990s, the Michigan Department of Transportation wanted to construct a four-lane highway that was parallel to an existing two-lane road. The expansion in the northwestern part of the state would have caused the largest single wetlands loss in Michigan according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  The wetlands in this area support numerous species of birds including blue herons, common egrets, sandhill cranes and much more. It would have severely compromised wildlife habitat in the region. After using the NEPA process, citizens convinced the transportation agency to upgrade the existing highway, keeping the wetlands intact and saving the tax-payers more than $1.5 billion dollars.

Source: Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Let the administration know how important it is to preserve NEPA

Without NEPA, these and thousands of other wildlife success stories wouldn’t have been possible.  Please speak up and tell the administration not to go forward with its plan to stifle public comment and risk environmental degradation. 

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