NPS Director's Order 12: Conservation Planning, Environmental Impact Analysis and Decision Making
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Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site7.1 Programmatic Documents and Planning — Is NEPA Triggered by Plans?

In the past, NPS has called NEPA a “compliance” action, making you think it only documents a separate NPS planning procedure. This is not true. In fact, NEPA is the law that requires NPS to undertake a specific, scientifically valid conservation planning and impact assessment process. NEPA is only a “compliance” action because it is legally required.

The steps detailed in the CEQ regulations and this handbook are all to be done early in NPS decision-making, as part of the planning process, rather than the traditional permitting or compliance process. According to CEQ, “Agencies shall integrate the NEPA process with other planning at the earliest possible time to insure that planning and decisions reflect environmental values, to avoid delays later in the process, and to head off potential conflicts” (1501.2). You plan based on your park's purpose and significance, its visitor needs, and other resource management or maintenance objectives. NEPA requires that you also follow the steps CEQ has laid out in including resource conservation and environmental impact information as part of the basis for your park's long- and short-term choices. This information is considered essential to NPS decision-making, and it is to be combined with other planning (1501.2(a), 1502.25, Q21). Physically, a plan and a NEPA document may and should be prepared and distributed simultaneously (1501.2 (b)). However, it should be clear, if the two are combined, which sections constitute the NEPA document.

  You should apply the same criteria to decide whether NEPA is required for plans as you would for projects, legislation, and so forth; that is, would an alternative contemplated in the plan ultimately affect the human environment?  

Despite this clear message from CEQ, it is sometimes less clear in real-life NPS planning whether the “formal” NEPA process, complete with a CE, EA, or EIS and public input, is needed. For instance, you may wish to study the condition of resources or the feasibility of certain park goals or objectives. These studies may not require NEPA analysis, yet they would benefit from some form of environmental planning. Integrating environmental information into the earliest form of park decision-making will result in better decisions, and often in more streamlined subsequent NEPA analyses as well.

When decisions about resource use having the potential for environmental effects are being contemplated, or another kind of planning (housing feasibility studies, parkwide zoning, etc.) is ongoing, a NEPA review process is almost certainly required. In fact, CEQ includes plans as major federal actions (1508.18) requiring NEPA analysis.

Section 4.4 identifies several types of plans that normally require an EIS. NPS plans not on this list are not necessarily exempt from NEPA. Rather, you should apply the same criteria to decide whether environmental analysis is required for plans as you would for projects, legislation, and so forth; that is, would a choice being contemplated in the plan, such as the action, ultimately affect the human environment (section 1.3)?

It may be tempting to assume that only the implementation of a plan, rather than the choices the plan itself represents, will have environmental impact and therefore require NEPA analysis. However, if decisions affecting future land or resource use are being made in a plan or program, NEPA is triggered. This is because CEQ recognizes that a discussion of, and public input on, options (alternatives) and their environmental pros and cons (impacts) would be valuable in making even broad policy-level decisions.

Some examples of NPS planning elements that do not normally require NEPA are collecting and mapping sensitive resource data or determining needs for future planning. Some that do trigger NEPA are GMPs, project and activity plans, establishment of a carrying capacity, zoning of a park or part of a park for future use, implementation plans, concession plans, and climbing management plans.

If it is still unclear whether your park's planning effort requires NEPA analysis, ask yourself these questions:

  • Will decisions made in this plan ultimately have an impact on the environment when this plan or program is implemented?
  • Is this a formal planning process in some other way?
  • Will this plan examine options?
  • Would the examination of environmental costs and benefits of these options be helpful in making decisions contemplated in this plan?
  • Would resource data be useful in making decisions contemplated in this plan?
  • Will this planning effort include public participation?
  • Will decisions made in this plan commit resources?
  • Will decisions made in this plan preclude future choices?

If the answer to the first question is yes, you should consider the NEPA process outlined in this handbook to be legally required and begin the environmental planning process early enough so the information you gather can be used “as an important contribution to the decision-making process” (1502.5). If the answer to one or more of the other questions is yes (but the answer to the first is no), your IDT or decision-maker should carefully consider whether information on options and the environmental pros and cons of each and/or public input would be valuable. If so, you should initiate the NEPA planning process.

A. EISs for general management plans

It is standard NPS practice and policy to prepare an EIS with your park's GMP. This is because a GMP is a major federal action, with long-term management implications for a unit of the NPS. The public considers National Parks to represent the highest standard of federally protected resources. There may not be significant public controversy associated with the GMP, and scoping may not reveal potential for significant impacts, but the act of long-term planning and implementation of park-wide courses of action in and of itself is more appropriately presented in an EIS.

The implementing legislation for NPS, unlike that for other land and resource management agencies, requires conservation of park resources. The resources in our care are unique, and so, according to Congress, they deserve this protection. It follows that decisions affecting these special resources have greater potential for significant impact than if they occurred on federal lands managed by other agencies. Decisions made in a GMP or another broad planning document affect proportionately more of these special resources, and so they are even more likely than smaller-scale park actions to have significant impacts and qualify as major federal actions. These are the kind of decisions CEQ believed would benefit from an EIS and its associated full-fledged environmental planning and public involvement effort. Courts have been consistent in requiring EISs for this kind of large-scale agency (including NPS) decision-making.

Another important reason parks should prepare GMP EISs is that they are used to narrow the range of future choices. In other words, parks often use the GMP NEPA document to “tier” (see section 7.4) to more site-specific projects that implement some part of the GMP. As the park collects site-specific information, it may find that the project will have significant impacts and that an EIS is required. However, you may not refer to or tier the GMP NEPA document in this case unless it too was an EIS. This is because preparing an EA/FONSI for the park GMP assures the public that no significant impacts would take place from its implementation. Preparing a subsequent EIS to implement the plan counters and invalidates the original GMP FONSI.

Finally, NEPA documents prepared for broad NPS decision-making, such as those associated with GMPs, are of interest to a larger public audience. This also means they are more likely to be the subject of litigation. EAs and their accompanying FONSIs do poorly in court because they must provide “proof” that significant impact will not occur if the agency takes action. Yet, particularly in the case of programmatic or planning decisions made over very large areas, the data collected are reconnaissance-level, and it is difficult or impossible to prove that no future significant impacts will occur from implementation of that program or policy. The EIS allows you to admit that you do not know the exact nature of future impacts and that they may prove significant when site-specific data are collected.

The Environmental Quality Division, through the Associate Director for Natural Resources Stewardship and Science, may grant an exception to the requirement that EISs be prepared for GMPs on a case-by-case basis, when it is clear that site-specific data indicate that the potential for significant impact does not exist.

Further Links:

Director's Order #2: Park Planning

B. NEPA documents as building blocks

When preparing NEPA documents for plans, you should build on EISs and EAs already completed for broader actions. For example, your park GMP identifies an area of the park as a good spot for hikes because views are excellent, but a few fragile resources exist. When it comes time to prepare a trails plan for this area, you may initially use the GMP EIS as an appropriate source of general information in beginning your trail's NEPA document. You can also assume that the range of alternatives for the trails NEPA analysis has been defined by the GMP, if the data and subsequent conclusions were valid. Your data collection efforts should be more site-specific for the trails NEPA work than for the GMP EIS, but only as detailed as required to make the decisions needed, such as what are the best spots to locate the trail system in this area.

North Country National Scenic TrailA third NEPA document may be required when it comes time to build one of the trails, because site-specific data are required before the plan can be implemented. (Another approach is to collect site-specific data at the time the trails plan is created — see section 7.2 for a discussion of timing.) Because the decisions are much more specific, the data you collect should be also. You may wish to move a trail a few hundred feet one way or another to avoid affecting a special environmental resource, or you may want to design a section of trail a certain way to avoid, for instance, drainage problems. However, the general location of the trail should be determined by the programmatic trails plan and data collected for it. This process of going from general to specific data collection, and from broad to narrow decision-making, is called tiering. Tiering is explained further in section 7.4.

Further Links:

Draft Guidance Template Environmental Assessment National Park Service Fire Management Plans

National Fire Plan

2001 Appropriations Implementation Strategy National Fire Plan USDI National Park Service

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