Timing of NEPA review

NEPA and agency planning can come together at three junctures. In the first case, the agency may develop a plan and then perform NEPA reviews on the planning options after the plan is finished. Alternatively, the agency may prepare a NEPA review of a programmatic set of actions, and then prepare a plan to determine how to implement the programmatic decisions. Thirdly, the agency may use the NEPA review process as a basis for developing a plan, including a consideration of alternative courses of action (the "heart" of the NEPA analysis), using an interdisciplinary approach to look at a wide range of environmental facets and involving the public or other interested parties in the planning process.

A discussion of the pros and cons of these three approaches follows. Each has its place in the agency planner's toolbox.

Plan first, NEPA review second. This approach is useful when a plan itself is not subject to NEPA, but the implementing strategies would require a NEPA review. At times an agency may wish to develop a high-level strategy or program to provide long-term or mission-specific direction, such as a plan to document a national energy policy. Because this type of plan looks far into the future or does not define specific actions, it may be premature to pursue a NEPA review until a set of actions emerge that are "ripe for decision." Once a course of direction is established through the policy or plan, the agency may then want to pursue NEPA review of the discrete actions that would emanate from the plan.

Pros. This approach allows an agency the flexibility to sketch out a broad plan of action without detailing large suites of "reasonable" alternatives for analysis in a NEPA review. Often the possible courses of action are too uncertain or too amorphous early in the planning process to be able to sustain a meaningful NEPA analysis. Once a plan is established, the agency can then appropriately focus its attention on the specific decisions that must be made to carry out the planned actions. This sharpens the agency focus. The follow-on NEPA reviews can be staged to allow the agency to sequentially focus on issues that are "ripe for decision" within the context of the larger course of action developed through the plan.

Cons. It is easy for an agency to focus its attention on a preferred course of action too soon, thereby abbreviating or sharply narrowing the spectrum of "reasonable" alternatives to be considered in the NEPA review. The agency may come to rely on its plan as if it had made a decision through the NEPA process, and perform NEPA too late in the process, after all implementing decisions have been made. Officials may develop "ego commitment" to one course of action, and feel they cannot entertain modifications because of the risk of appearing weak or indecisive within the agency. If the agency has used the planning process to divide an entire course of action into smaller pieces, it may be guilty of "segmentation," which is the inappropriate use of NEPA to look at one small part of a larger proposal apart from its broader context. If the plan is too broad or too high-level, there may be little substance to use as the subject of a NEPA review, resulting in a large number of analysis assumptions that may have little grounding in fact.

NEPA review first, plan second. This approach is useful to determine if there would be unacceptable environmental impacts from potential courses of action, and to use this information as a starting point to develop a plan. The NEPA review would be followed by a plan on how to carry out the decisions derived from the NEPA review. For example, an agency may use the NEPA process with public involvement to reach an early decision to select a site or technology for a major new facility, then develop project-specific plans at only the selected site or focus only on the selected technology. If needed, the agency may engage in a site-specific or "tiered" NEPA review of the impacts of constructing and operating the facility on the selected site.

Pros. The agency can use the NEPA process to narrow the field so that it does not have to develop detailed plans for a number of "reasonable" alternatives. The agency can look at "connected actions" through the NEPA process without fear of improper "segmentation" of the suite of actions that need to be taken.

Cons. The agency will have to develop a reasoned set of analysis assumptions in order to make an informed choice among NEPA alternatives prior to engaging in the planning process. The scope of the programmatic NEPA review, if too narrow, might inadvertently limit the scope of the subsequent plan.

Plan developed through a NEPA review. This approach is useful when the development of the plan and NEPA review of implementing strategies are intertwined. Many federal land managing agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, or the Bureau of Land Management, prepare land-use plans or resource management plans to guide their stewardship of the nation's forests, parks, and public lands. Typically, these plans are developed by dovetailing the planning process with the NEPA review. The agency prepares one document, which is jointly a plan and an environmental analysis.

The Bureau of Land Management, for example, follows a planning process that was established in the 1970s by law and related regulations. The Bureau administers vast acreages of the nation's public lands, primarily in 12 western states. The Bureau must balance many different types of resources under the principles of "multiple use" and "sustained yield." These uses include such things as cattle grazing, wildlife management, oil exploration, mining, recreation, and paleonto-logical preserves; although often not all of these resource uses take place on the same tract of land, in some cases they do. The land manager must decide how to resolve conflicts among different types of land uses on a given tract of land. For example, if cattle need to use a water source, wildlife using the same source might be driven away. Lands that are being used to extract minerals may be unsafe for hikers, or active hard rock mining operations may conflict with oil and gas exploration.

To assist the agency, in 1976 Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (43 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.). Sometimes called an "organic act," the law established many ways to organize the agency and its processes. Title II of that law specifically provides that the agency inventory public lands to determine their resource values, and prepare land use plans to prioritize and allocate resource management. Through agency regulations (found at 43 CFR 1600), the planning process combines the elements required by Title II with the elements required by NEPA. The resource management plan for a given Bureau resource area, which may cover several thousand acres, is developed in conjunction with the required NEPA review (BLM, 2000). The environmental impact statement analyzes alternative resource uses and includes a draft plan as a preferred alternative; the record of decision presents the plan finally decided upon and explains the trade-offs among competing land and resource uses.

Similar to the NEPA review process, the Bureau envisions its planning process as tiered. At the highest level, the agency has a strategic plan that outlines broad mission goals. At the next tier, the agency prepares resource management plans to weigh resource uses within a given area. At the lowest tier, the agency may prepare site-specific implementation plans to determine how a given activity will be carried out (BLM, 2000). By using a tiered approach, a Bureau manager can focus resources and attention on questions that are "at issue."

Pros. The agency can use the NEPA process to add value to its plans by simultaneously weighing resource value trade-offs while disclosing environmental impacts of the various options considered. The agency can streamline its work by completing two types of reviews at the same time. The planning process can narrow the scope of the "reasonable" alternatives considered in the NEPA review and eliminate unnecessary or spurious analyses; at the same time the NEPA process can provide needed information on the environmental impacts of possible approaches and allow the plan to concentrate on those that would have lesser environmental impacts. This approach also allows planners to develop mitigation measures to offset adverse impacts.

Cons. Combining two similar, but different, types of reviews in one joint document can be confusing to the agency, the document preparers, and the general public. The agency planners must be able to conduct the two similar, but different, processes at the same time.

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