Horse News

Fed’s Gutting of NEPA Will Cut the Public Out of Public Lands Decisions

as published on

The Trump administration is stampeding ahead with a rewrite of the regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

photo by Terry Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation

This landmark law requires federal agencies to study—and let the public weigh in on—the environmental impacts of federal actions. Ironically, given NEPA’s central purpose of including the public in environmental decision-making, the Trump administration is already cutting the public out of its regulatory overhaul.

I know firsthand: As the director of the nation’s leading environmental group addressing public lands livestock grazing, I am blocked from giving testimony at the public hearing on new NEPA regulations that govern, among other things, livestock grazing on America’s public lands. The Council on Environmental Quality held a lottery to attend the Denver public hearing, and the tickets were gone in a matter of minutes. I got a ticket to sit in the audience and watch as the Trump administration unravels this critical environmental law, but I won’t be permitted to provide my organization’s expertise on NEPA and its nexus with public lands management. Many other conservationists got locked out entirely.

Congress enacted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970, after more than a century of private industries running roughshod over public lands. The headlong rush to exploit public lands for economic gain, particularly in the West, led to genocide of native peoples, desertification by cattle and sheep, loss of trout and salmon populations, destruction of old-growth forests, decimation of native wildlife, and widespread air and water pollution.

NEPA has three basic – and commonsense – requirements. In conducting the legally required environmental reviews, federal agencies must look before they leap, examining the environmental consequences of proposed actions before they are approved. Science plays a central role. They must examine a range of alternatives, including alternatives more compatible with environmental protection than the original proposal. The public is entitled to an opportunity for meaningful input, and agencies must respond to public comments.

The federal government manages National Parks and Monuments, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, and Bureau of Land Management lands in trust, on behalf of the American public. NEPA is the sole means for the public to have a voice in how these public lands are managed. Will they be managed for public enjoyment or benefit? Or primarily to generate private profits for commercial and industrial interests? And to what degree, if any, will safeguards be required to protect the environment, and public use and enjoyment?

The proposed regulations erect roadblocks to prevent public oversight and participation, expanding the use of “categorical exclusions.” These loopholes that allow agencies to approve environmentally destructive actions with no public input and without a thorough environmental review. The proposed regulations also open the door for states – that may be actively hostile to federal protections, as in Utah and Wyoming – to dictate uses of public lands that they have no legal authority to manage.

The new regulations only require public involvement at the “scoping” stage, before alternatives are explained and impacts are disclosed. This essentially blocks the public from providing information about the agency’s alternatives or about the level of impact projected for a proposed action.

Draconian deadlines and page limits would reduce the thoroughness and quality of scientific analysis in NEPA documents, and Environmental Assessments would no longer have to have detailed explanations of alternatives. Without a detailed discussion of each alternative, of course, independent verification of an alternative’s impacts would be impossible. Fast-tracking project approvals and short-cutting scientific analysis of impacts inevitably results in hasty decisions and environmentally damaging mistakes – exactly the problem NEPA was drafted to solve.

The new regulations eliminate the legal requirement to examine cumulative impacts, allowing agencies to consider impacts of individual projects in a vacuum. In Wyoming, state agencies consider each oil or gas well in a field an individual industrial site for air quality compliance, instead of considering the cumulative pollution generated by thousands of wells in a single wellfield. This is how Pinedale, Wyoming got worse air pollution than Los Angeles, and the attendant lung disease problems. Under the new NEPA regulations, the BLM could follow Wyoming’s example and approve thousands of individual wells — authorizing massive oil and gas fields piecemeal with devastating effects on sage grouse populations, big game herds, migration corridors, or air quality — while ignoring the magnitude of those impacts.

The proposed new regulations also mount a major attack on NEPA by abandoning the long tradition of requiring a thorough Environmental Impact Statement to carefully consider environmental impacts of large-scale “programmatic” decisions, like land-use plans that govern millions of acres of public land. Forest Plans and other land-use plans govern where industrial destruction will be allowed, and where it won’t. They also identify the terms and conditions (notably mandatory environmental protections) that must be applied. Without a NEPA process, these zoning decisions occur in the dark, without consideration of public health or environmental protection, and indeed without any consideration of the consequences.

The new regulations also seek to frustrate judicial oversight. They set up barriers for environmental groups even getting to challenge unlawful decisions in court, and once there, they eliminate the presumption that a federal agency violating NEPA is itself a harm that justifies halting the action being challenged. In this way, the NEPA regs go beyond violating NEPA itself and violate the separation of powers guaranteed in the Constitution.

These problems are only the tip of the iceberg, yet they show the severity of the Trump administration’s attack on our nation’s public lands by tampering with NEPA’s regulations. Since the Trump administration is shutting conservationists out of “public” meetings, they can now read about it in the press.

Erik Molvar is Executive Director for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group working to protect and restore watersheds and wildlife throughout the American West.

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13 replies »

  1. So TRUE and I am afraid that the general public has no concept about how or why we have NEPA or how vitally important it is to all Americans and the planet. Our public lands are being bought and sold and it is only by a tightrope by NEPA that we even have any say as to what we the people want and now they want to take that away for the sake of making it easier to take the “public” out of “public lands”. This is one of the worst things that can happen for our wild ones and public lands.

    Talking points: Re: Public Comment to Docket ID No. CEQ-2019-0003
    National Environmental Policy Act Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)

    The proposed limitations on NEPA are absolutely unacceptable. These new rules must not be allowed to go into effect. The permanent damage caused to an already frail and declining environment by these proposed rules will affect generations of humans around the world. The federal government, corporations and contractors have repeatedly proven that they must not be allowed to police themselves on matters of environmental protection, especially when they stand to directly profit from same. It is beyond me how this is even being considered.
    It is concerning that CEQ is contemplating significant regulatory changes to NEPA while the current administration is simultaneously pursuing regulatory changes to our nation’s other bedrock environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act. These activities appear to be a coordinated effort to roll back our nation’s key environmental protections.
    The Supreme Court has held that NEPA is a procedural statute that serves the twin aims of ensuring that agencies consider the significant environmental consequences of their proposed actions and inform the public about their decision making.
    Mandating one-size-fits-all time limits for all NEPA review will inevitably undermine two important aspects of NEPA — public engagement and the consideration of alternatives. Both aspects of NEPA — while criticized as time-consuming by industries seeking to limit the application of NEPA — are essential to NEPA’ s success. On numerous occasions, NEPA’s process for public engagement and the consideration of alternatives has led to better designed projects, increased public support for local projects, and the avoidance of public health impacts and environmental harm for American communities.
    NEPA and its implementing regulations have successfully promoted meaningful local involvement, sustainable development, and deliberate federal decision-making for decades. Given this record of success, CEQ should refrain from making significant changes to existing NEPA regulations. I am totally against these modifications. The US government should be greatly increasing its efforts to monitor and protect the environment, not discourage review and continue its degradation, which will hugely negatively impact future generations of Americans.

    You can make your comment on the federal register website (due March 10th).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. GG – until I started reading this blog and WHE’s blog – had no clue what NEPA was. Youre right – most people have never heard of it sadly & far too many dont do the research to find out – even just go google it! Just like our political system, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t know about anyone else here, but for me all of this negative news regarding the wild horses & burros, plus the horrible news about the horses being slaughtered & severely injured & abused in such a horrific way is beyond depressing. The news about horses dying needlessly at race tracks & those at the kill pens & auctions? If it weren’t for RT & the rest of our devoted supporters, I think I would give up here. God Bless All Of You for being a voice for the innocent ones. If it weren’t for your devotion & commitment, I would not feel so compelled to “NEVER GIVE UP”.. You Will Be Blessed! AMEN 4 All Animals who suffer at the hands of man!


    • Think about it – if you or we or all of us actually gave up or had done so years ago – they WOULD be gone now! Hard as it is to read & hear about – we have to be the ones who listen & care and make some attempt to stop it. I know I have the same feelings of discouragement and I’m sure everyone here does – but we have to hang in there!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Maggie, you are SO right. When “they” have to go so far as to have the ACTING director of the BLM state publicly that wild horses and burros are the biggest problem on public lands it indicates a certain desperation.
        Wild Horses & Burros on OUR public lands are apparently the biggest problem to THEM.


    From AWHC

    The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is preparing to move forward with a ten-year plan to reduce the wild horse population in the Swasey Herd Management Area (HMA) in Utah to just 60 horses.

    In order to achieve this, the BLM would authorize mass roundups in the area and greenlight dangerous chemical and surgical sterilization procedures on mares who call these public lands home. One of these methods has been deemed to be dangerous and “inadvisable” for use in wild horses by the National Academy of Sciences, and other methods haven’t even been developed yet…. let alone safety-tested.

    The BLM wants to reduce the Swasey mustang population to 60 horses on this 190-square-mile HMA to make room for the more than 7,000 privately-owned, taxpayer-subsidized sheep that annually graze the public lands there.

    The truth is: there is more than enough room for wild horses on public lands. But those facts don’t fit the narrative being promoted by the BLM and the livestock industry.


  5. You can read Craig Downer’s comments on his website

    The Wild Horse Conspiracy

    BLM Fillmore Field Office
    Attn: Trent Staheli
    95 East 500 North
    Fillmore, UT 84631

    Re: Swasey HMA Wild Horse Gather Plan E.A., public comments due February 20, 2020 by letter or via BLM website see: for link to EA & window for input.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Millard County Chronicle Progress

    An adoption event is scheduled at the Delta Wild Horse and Burro Corral on Jan. 31.
    A previous adoption event was canceled late last year after an outbreak of strangles, or equine strep, sickened some of the facility’s animals.

    Heath Weber, facility manager at the Delta corral, said the event is meant to publicize the corral and opportunities for adoption, including the BLM’s new incentive program, which offers up to $1,000 to people who adopt a wild horse.

    Weber said he expects some Swasey horses to eventually see the inside of the Delta facility, especially as the inventory of Onaqui horses dwindles.

    “At some point, like the Swasey gather, I’m not saying those horses will come here, but there’s probably a fair possibility they will,” he said. “We’ll probably clean out the entire inventory and then do it all over again.”


  7. Hey! Love your post! this is so interesting and still relevant today. Please check out my recent post to help spread awareness about Trump’s decision!


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