NPS Director's Order 12: Conservation Planning, Environmental Impact Analysis and Decision Making
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California National Historic Trail, CA1.5 Introduction — Timing of NEPA

Your park may follow a NEPA-like process much of the time now. The analysis of options and the environmental pros and cons of each, whether for management prescriptions for a park or for design features of a single building, is the kind of planning that NEPA asks of all agencies, and that may already be integral to decision-making in your park unit. The essence of NEPA is a continuous “checking in” or monitoring of successive decisions to ensure proactive, rather than reactive, conservation and resource planning and management. Although the formal “NEPA process” includes active public involvement and documentation, the integration of environmental information and values into agency decision-making nonetheless helps carry out the intent of both NEPA and the Organic Act, and it should be part of planning at all levels, even for goal-setting for broad park actions such as those in a general management plan or its equivalent.

  Knowing how early or how late to begin a NEPA analysis is often a difficult balancing act.  

You must begin the NEPA process whenever your park is in the proposal stage of any of the federal actions described in section 1-3 of this handbook. The proposal stage is defined as the feasibility stage (40 CFR 1502.5 (a)), or the point when your park “has a goal and is actively preparing to make a decision on one or more alternative means of accomplishing that goal and the effects can be meaningfully evaluated” (1508.23).

Knowing how early or how late to begin a NEPA analysis is often a difficult balancing act. You should try to start early, so that environmental information can be a valuable part of the decision-making criteria.

Campground, Assateague Island National Seashore, VA and MDIf your park intends to prepare a plan that would make decisions about resource uses, it may be particularly difficult to know when to begin NEPA. Two factors may be helpful in this decision. Because NEPA requires the creation and analysis of alternatives, one factor in deciding when to initiate NEPA may be when a range of options would be most useful for your decision-maker and the public. The other, and more important, factor to consider is whether the kinds of choices you will be making in the plan have the potential for impact to the human environment. If so, NEPA is required. Director's Order 2, the Park Service's planning guideline, has information about the integration of NEPA with all levels of park planning that may be useful if you are beginning a general management plan (GMP) or other plan.

Usually if a plan or project is so specific that it is the only reasonable option, this means you have waited too long to begin NEPA, because all of the important decisions have been made without benefit of environmental analysis. In this case, you may be violating NEPA by using the process “to rationalize or justify decisions already made” (1502.5).

Although the timing will vary on a case-by-case basis, two rules should guide you when you choose to begin a NEPA review and analysis:

  • All of the steps necessary to complete the NEPA process are to be finished in time to be part of any recommendation or report on the proposal-that is, early enough so that the final document can “serve practically as an important contribution to the decision-making process.”
  • No action that is the subject of an ongoing NEPA analysis or that would limit the choice of alternatives undergoing NEPA scrutiny should be taken until the NEPA process is complete (1506.1). This includes design work, funding pieces of a project, choosing building contractors, and so forth.

A. NEPA and the project proposal/contracting process

Parks often develop project proposals to record the information that is necessary to justify, program, fund, and initiate specific tasks. When funding is requested for a construction or resource management action, the funding request cannot be approved until the NEPA process is complete or the need for environmental analysis is adequately described and provided for within the request. This step is particularly important for those proposals where internal scoping has indicated that the potential for significant impact exists. In addition, you should not solicit bids or sign a contract for a proposal until the NEPA process is complete, or you will be in violation of the CEQ requirement that “Agencies shall not commit resources prejudicing selection of alternatives before making a final decision” (1506.1).

B. When to begin NEPA on plans

NEPA may be activated by many of the plans that NPS produces, including general management planning, certain types of strategic plans, wilderness and resource management actions, and implementation plans (see Director's Order 2 for information on some of these kinds of plans). If the plans are intended to make decisions that, if implemented, could have an impact on the human environment (see section 1.3), the NEPA process is triggered. Most NEPA requirements are compatible with or identical to requirements for sound management planning. In most cases, NEPA requirements are easily integrated into the planning process, and they provide the information that decision-makers need to make informed choices. Rather than create additional burdens in the planning process, following NEPA requirements should help expedite prompt and defensible decision-making.

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