Last month Melanie Hernandez and I attended the Annual National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP) conference in Tacoma, Washington, where Mr. Ted Boling, Associate Director for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) at the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) spoke to the assembled NEPA practitioners. As we enter the 50th anniversary year of NEPA, he encouraged us to reconnect with the goal of NEPA and make our NEPA documents more concise and completed faster. (I know it’s hard to believe, but the original goal of NEPA was not to produce volumes of text, but rather, to “foster excellent action that protects, restores, and enhances our environment”).
In his keynote address, Mr. Boling quoted President Abraham Lincoln, saying: “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” The key point: take the time to think about what we really need to convey in our NEPA documents and then craft the document accordingly. Focus on what matters! Make it crisp. Do not write voluminous reports hoping to eliminate all risk (which by the way is impossible); instead, apply an issue-based analysis that balances acceptable risk and results in focused and faster NEPA documentation.
Mr. Boling’s message and inspiration were amplified throughout the conference presentations. He and other speakers urged us to pledge, as NEPA practitioners, to make our documents more focused to facilitate both public understanding and project implementation. With Mr. Boling’s words – which also included a teaser to forthcoming new NEPA guidance from the CEQ – here are more quotes from Abraham Lincoln that lend themselves to more focused, faster NEPA documentation.
“If I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter.”
- Before doing public scoping, do an internal scoping process to identify anticipated issues. Brainstorm the issues. Doing so will help focus the team, the meeting facilitation, comment/responses, and document structure.
- Making time before scoping to decide what you want to convey can also result in time-savings later by having more readable, shorter, and concise analyses – less text for people to review and comment on.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
- If you have a document in progress, think critically about what is extraneous while considering risk. Then eliminate extraneous text with confidence – or – identify information that can be moved to an appendix or administrative record. Make an impactful delivery of the key elements.
- When starting a new document, make sure your analysis takes a “hard look” while avoiding extraneous background data. Outline the anticipated environmental impacts section before writing the affected environment section. Then tailor the baseline description to support the impact discussion by eliminating needless existing conditions text.
“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”
- Give your audience what they need and want to read about; address their legitimate concerns early and clearly in the document.
- Use graphics and text boxes to highlight key text. Put important information up front. Make it easy for people to find what they are looking for. Make it a useful document to support decision making, not a doorstop!
“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” (I always thought this was a line accredited to Bob Marley [see Get Up Stand Up], but as it turns out, it really speaks to transparency in the NEPA process!)
- As NEPA practitioners, we never intend to fool the public, but at times the public feels misled. So, clearly convey the action and impacts. Use simple language. Always be transparent; that is a core element of NEPA – disclose the impacts in a clear and meaningful way!
- If you eliminate a resource area from detailed analysis, make sure you can clearly defend your rationale for doing so.
“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can.”
- Don’t be quick to dismiss public input, especially when evaluating action alternatives. Make sure your project purpose is not so narrow to preclude consideration of reasonable alternatives.
- What are the expected areas of public concern? Prepare the analysis around the key issues to head off potential litigation. Importantly, don’t overlook greenhouse gas contributions from your project. Recent case law shows that no matter the guidance, you’re going to have to look at greenhouse gas emissions, because this is being litigated when they are not evaluated.
“Don’t worry when you are not recognized but strive to be worthy of recognition.”
- Let’s all strive to do just as Mr. Boling asks – elevate our approach to be worthy of recognition – recognition by not only our community, but just as importantly, those elected officials and action proponents who view NEPA as an impediment. Let’s help them become supporters of the NEPA process – or at the very least, accepting of it!
- The NEPA process is an important element of our democracy. We must do our part to help keep it a respected and valuable policy. Let’s do our part and achieve excellence!
At Scout we look forward to working with our client partners in developing more streamlined and faster NEPA documentation in accordance with their agency NEPA guidance documents. Now is the time to streamline NEPA compliance through crisp, efficient documentation. We look forward to leading the way!
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