NEPA is at heart a planning tool. The law requires federal agencies to consider environmental consequences along with other types of issues (such as financial, political, social, or technical) when making decisions, and evaluate alternative courses of action. Although NEPA does not dictate an environmentally benign outcome from federal decisions, as a matter of national policy the law asks that agencies act as stewards of the environment and try to protect it from harm. NEPA requires that if a proposed action is expected to cause adverse consequences, the agency must fully disclose these adverse consequences and must identify mitigation actions and put these into place over time to ameliorate the adverse consequences of federal action. A federal agency must review its proposed projects to establish NEPA compliance. Such a "NEPA review" may result in any one of several types of documents, such as an EAor EIS. In order to most effectively do this, the agency must plan ahead.
The CEQ regulations address the relationship between NEPA and agency planning (see 40 CFR 1501). The regulations emphasize that integration of NEPA early in the agency planning process will be the most effective way to avoid conflicts and delays in seeing a project through to completion. Adoption of formal agency plans is one of the four main types of federal actions that trigger a NEPA review (see 40 CFR 1508.18(b)(2)). NEPA reviews prepared on plans, broad programs, or closely related proposals are often referred to as "programmatic" NEPA reviews (see 40 CFR 1502.4). While some federal agencies are continuing to increase the use of NEPA as an agency strategic planning tool, this use of NEPA is still growing (CEQ, 1997).
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