NEPA, the nation's preeminent conservation law, ensures that public officials make informed decisions about the environmental consequences of their actions by requiring thorough environmental assessments with public participation. This is the same law that helped to protect thousands of square miles of deep sea coral, reduced mortality of endangered sea turtles and began the process of rebuilding depleted fish populations while ensuring robust public participation in federal fisheries management. But the Bush administration's proposal, published on May 14, 2008, is full of loopholes and exclusions that would do little to protect the environment.
This NEPA proposal could create a bad precedent affecting the application of NEPA to other aspects of the environment since it provides a roadmap for other federal agencies to modify their NEPA procedures.
"Overfishing, pollution, bycatch and global warming are already putting a heavy strain on the habitats of several imperiled seabird species," said Steve Kress, director of Audubon's seabirds program. "More than ever, we need to make decisions based on good science. Instead, the federal government's weakening of environmental review protections will stack the odds in favor of industry and likely degrade habitat further."
"This proposal is a cynical attempt to shove the public out of its rightful role in protecting public resources," said Andrea Treece, senior attorney in the Center for Biological Diversity's oceans program. "Fishing affects virtually every ecosystem and species in the sea, from the fish we eat, to whales we thrill to watch, sea turtles we strive to protect and coral reefs that support local economies. Leaving the management of these national treasures to guesswork and backroom deals instead of sound science and public input is simply unacceptable."
According to law, a NEPA review must include an analysis of a full suite of alternatives to the proposed action. This will help ensure that the broader impacts of a proposed action are examined and minimized. But, the Bush administration's proposal not only undercuts and complicates the NEPA process, it also makes it even more difficult to conduct a proper and necessary environmental review.
As written, the Bush administration's proposed rule would undermine NEPA by severely limiting the public's right to participate in fishery management decisions and even shutting out the public from future participation, if they don't weigh in during the initial round of public comments. It would also allow the regional fishery management councils to control environmental reviews. Many of these councils are dominated by fishing interests and have mismanaged our oceans for decades. Additionally, the proposal gives fishery managers the power to make fishing decisions without adequately considering the impacts on other components of ocean ecosystems such as sea turtles, seals, corals and other precious ocean life.
"The effectiveness of NEPA is due, in large part, to the fact that it provides a concrete method for concerned citizens to become involved in and to challenge government actions if they are not following the law," said Caitlin Hills, National Forest Program Director for American Lands Alliance. "The government moves through the guidelines and procedures to implement the law and make decisions. This common sense 'look before you leap' requirement leads to better decisions and helps the government avoid making mistakes. This proposal weakens that process."