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Environmental Compliance

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Environmental compliance in the NPS encompasses the mandates of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and all other federal environmental laws that require evaluation, documentation and disclosure, and public involvement. These include but are not limited to the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, Executive Orders on Floodplains and Wetlands, the Coastal Zone Management Act, Historic Preservation Act, and others. These acts should be viewed as planning aids to resource-based decision making, rather than legal "hoops" through which managers must jump.

NEPA itself is widely viewed as landmark legislation because it declared a national environmental policy, created a formal legal process for the integration of environmental values into federal decision-making, and provided an umbrella under which the environmental mandates and analysis of several environmental laws can be integrated.The natural resource policy direction of NEPA, found in Section 101 of the Act, includes the promotion of "efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and to the biosphere" and will "enrich the understanding of ecological systems and ecological resources of the nation." All federal agencies are to use all practicable means to "fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations," and to "maintain, whenever possible, an environment which supports diversity.." The Act further discusses the role of research, studies, and investigations in forming the information base from which the cause and effect of environmental changes could be analyzed and monitored.Although NEPA does not require a particular outcome of the decision-making process, it does require federal agencies to take a hard look at the environmental effects based upon the best information available. NEPA, through section 102, and the accompanying guidelines of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) (40 CFR 1500-1508) set forth mandatory legal procedures all federal agencies must follow. It is important that all NPS professionals, including natural resource specialists, understand the requirements and their application, in full recognition that environmental documents are subject to legal review in a court of law.

This section of RM 77 is a brief explanation of the NPS compliance requirements. More detailed guidance is contained in DO 12 Conservation Planning and Environmental Impact Analysis, and Decision-making and the accompanying handbook and field guide.

Policy and Program Objectives

The goals and policies expressed in NEPA clearly complement and enhance the essential resource protection mandates of the NPS Organic Act. NEPA clearly intended for environmental values to be given full and professional consideration in federal decisions. Environmental analysis in the NPS is done not only to meet the requirements of the law, but also to ensure that decisions affecting the environment are the best, most informed decisions possible as was intended by NEPA's policy language.All natural resource management, maintenance activities, and scientific activities are subject to environmental analysis under NEPA. Species control programs or species restorations, research that requires sampling or manipulation, supplemental feeding, and similar actions are all subject to scrutiny and must show that appropriate environmental analyses have been undertaken.In general, to meet the test of "appropriateness," such programs must comply with the regulations and guidance of the CEQ, the Department of the Interior Manual, and DO 12.The NPS also recognizes that most of the decisions made through various planning and analysis processes have major implications for the long-term viability of park resources. The biological diversity represented in the NPS could be affected, especially when an environmental impact statement is involved. Additionally, the results of any single park's or region's planning, analysis, and decision-making efforts may influence other decisions for the entire National Park System.Participation by the NPS in the environmental planning and analysis processes of other agencies and jurisdictions is an important managerial tool. It can provide the NPS with information that will allow the NPS to respond to possible external threats to a park well before they occur. State and local governments often have environmental documentation requirements that are similar to NEPA's. Parks are encouraged to participate as cooperating agencies (40 CFR 1501.6) in the environmental planning and analysis process to the fullest extent possible when NPS resources may be affected, and as set forth in the CEQ regulations.Each park should have at least one individual who is familiar with NEPA and other environmental laws. Additionally, parks are encouraged to have project or environmental review committees, usually comprised of a representative from each division, to coordinate planning for proposed projects and environmental impact analysis needs within the park. Site visits and environmental review committee discussions must be documented with an Environmental Screening Form, or similar documentation (DO 12, Appendix 1). Some parks or regions may have established procedures to assist the parks in meeting these and other requirements.

Because the requirements of NEPA includes public participation, it is important for parks to maintain an accessible database of environmental documentation, including dates and brief descriptions of projects for which the documentation was done. Environmental documents older than five years should not be relied upon as documentation for new projects or proposals.


In addition to the general authorities discussed in the Introduction to this Reference Manual, the principal authorities for environmental planning and analysis include the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969; the Endangered Species Act; the Clean Water Act; the Coastal Zone Management Act; Executive Order 11988, Floodplain Management; and Executive Order 11990, Protection of Wetlands.

Relationship to Other Guidance

Guidelines include 40 CFR 1500-1508 and DO 12 Conservation Planning and Environmental Impact Analysis, and Decision-making. In DO 12, many of the individual sections include guidance on NEPA-related or other environmental compliance procedures. In the event of a discrepancy between guidance in other sections of this Reference Manual and that in DO 12, guidance in DO 12 supersedes.

Program Guidance

NEPA documents usually combine the analysis of NEPA with, the Endangered Species Act, Coastal Zone Management Act consistency requirements, and related laws. This approach is encouraged. However, only NEPA requirements are discussed below. Section 102 of NEPA sets forth a procedural means for compliance. Federal agencies are required to "utilize a systematic, interdisciplinary approach" to ensure the integrated use of resource information in federal decision-making affecting the environment. Agencies should "include in every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major federal actions significantly affecting the environment a detailed statement by the responsible official" outlining the environmental impacts, identifying unavoidable adverse environmental impacts, describing alternatives to the proposed action, and describing irreversible and irretrievable resource commitments. This statement should "ensure that presently unquantified environmental amenities and values may be given appropriate consideration in decision making...."The CEQ regulations further define the requirements for compliance with NEPA. Each proposed project must be evaluated at the earliest possible opportunity for potential environmental effects. In this way, proposals that may have entirely unacceptable impacts can be eliminated before any important commitments are made, or, a proposal can be modified to become more acceptable.Most NPS actions require some level of evaluation under NEPA. Some administrative actions are excused from NEPA without the need for further documentation and are referred to as "categorically excluded." Other actions that are more routine and that upon review are determined to have no measurable impacts can also be "categorically excluded" as documented by a Categorical Exclusion Form signed by the park superintendent.

However, it must be cautioned that there are situations where a categorical exclusion will not apply for certain kinds of actions, including if the action

  • adversely affects public health and safety or critical or geographically unique characteristics,
  • is highly controversial,
  • is precedent-setting,
  • adversely affects properties on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places,
  • potentially affects a listed or proposed to be listed species under the Endangered Species Act, or
  • potentially violates other laws when implemented.

A careful check of the complete NPS list of categorical exclusions and Departmental exceptions (see DO 12 Handbook) to these must be made by the park. The park should also consult with the regional environmental coordinator for assistance in determining which kind of environmental documentation is most appropriate.

If an action is not clearly categorically excluded, then it may require an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS). One purpose of an environmental assessment is to establish whether or not an action may have significant effects on the environment. An environmental assessment is also a useful planning tool to evaluate resource issues and impact mitigation. All feasible alternatives, including the "no action" alternative should be examined. Before undertaking any NEPA documentation, careful review must be given to the potential action relative to the CEQ criteria for "significance" (see CEQ guidelines). Additionally, DO 12 contains a list of NPS actions for which EISs are required.If all potentially significant effects can be mitigated, then the outcome of an environmental assessment may be a "Finding of No Significant Impact," or FONSI. The FONSI is legally a separate document from the EA, and can be reviewed by a court.

See DO 12 Handbook for a more complete discussion about determining if an effect may be significant, and for more information about environmental assessments and EISs.

Roles and Responsibilities

The Director of the NPS establishes and approves servicewide natural resource policies and standards. The Director is ultimately responsible for establishing natural resource programs that conserve natural resources unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations and for ensuring that such programs are in compliance with directives, policies, and laws. The Director retains signature and approval authority for programmatic environmental impact statements for proposals of nationwide application. While regional directors are delegated authority to approve other park-specific EISs, the Director may assume signature authority for any EIS that is unusually controversial or that involves major policy issues. The Associate Director, Natural Resource Stewardship and Science (ADNRSS), has functional authority, often through a subordinate division or office, for developing policies and standards for the Director's approval; providing policy oversight of NPS natural resource programs, including evaluating the results of field performance in complying with directives, policies, and laws; providing direct assistance to parks in specific program areas; and administering natural resource programs for which the ADNRSS has direct authority.Natural Resource Stewardship and Science (or other Washington Office) divisions/offices exercise the Associate Director's responsibility by administering specific natural resource programs, including those that provide direct assistance to parks in carrying out natural resource activities and in interpreting natural resource policies, regulations, and guidance; formulating servicewide natural resource standards, policies, and regulations; developing and promulgating methods, procedures, and guidelines to help parks conduct effective natural resource programs; and carrying out functional oversight within assigned program areas. The Environmental Quality Division may provide policy review and clearance for NPS EISs on a case-by-case basis depending on the level of controversy or policy issues prior to printing and public review of documents. The regional director, through or with the assistance of a deputy regional director is responsible for ensuring that natural resource programs within the region are uniformly implemented in compliance with directives, policies, and law; and identifying regional coordinators and contacts for specific program areas, where required, who can provide information and data about park natural resources and natural resource programs to the Washington Office. Regional directors are delegated the authority to approve most park-specific EISs and are responsible for approval of environmental assessments prior to release to the public. Only regional directors are to sign a FONSI. Regional directors also can accept or reject requests for the NPS to be a cooperating or joint lead agency on another agency's EIS.Regional environmental coordinators are designated by the regional director and must be kept informed by parks of the status of plans and related environmental documents. Regional environmental coordinators have oversight responsibility for all environmental compliance activities within a given region. They usually are the point of contact with the Washington Office on significant environmental issues. They serve as a resource to other NPS professionals for understanding the various environmental requirements under which the NPS operates. Regional environmental coordinators also have responsibility for assisting parks in needs identification; data collection and analysis; planning, program, and project development; and for providing advice on scientific and natural resource management issues.

The superintendent is responsible for understanding the park's natural resources and their condition. The superintendent is responsible for establishing and managing park natural resource programs and ensuring that they comply with environmental protection directives, policies, and laws. Superintendents should ensure that all park proposals use the NEPA process in the development and analysis plans and activities and involve the public and other agencies in an appropriate manner. Superintendents are also responsible for recommending FONSIs and RODs to the regional director for signature and approval.The park natural resource manager, on behalf of the superintendent, carries out needs assessments and planning and conducts operational natural resource management activities in compliance with environmental protection directives, policies, and laws.

Park resource specialists and contracting officers in parks, regions, and the Washington Office (including the Denver Service Center) are responsible for including in contracts and specifications all mitigating measures identified in an environmental document for the proposed action when construction is part of the project. Contracting officers are also responsible for ensuring that NEPA requirements are satisfied for all change orders.


Environmental Law Institute. 1989. The NEPA deskbook. Washington D.C.: Environmental Law Institute. Futrell, J.W. 1988. NEPA and the parks in David J. Simon (ed.) our common lands. Washington, D.C.: National Parks and Conservation Association. Keiter, Robert B. 1990. NEPA and the emerging concept of ecosystem management on the public lands. University of Wyoming College of Law Land and Water Review 25:43-60.

Mantell, Michael (ed.). 1990. Managing national park system resources: a handbook on legal duties, opportunities and tools. Washington, D.C.: Conservation Foundation.

Environmental Law Institute. 1995. Rediscovering the National Environmental Policy Act, back to the future. Washington, D.C.: Environmental Law Institute.

Environmental Compliance Table of Contents | RM#77 Table of Contents
update on 02/05/2004  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/Rm77/envir_compliance.cfm   I  Email: Contact Us
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