Our nation’s bedrock environmental law–the National Environmental Policy Act–is under attack by corporate polluters and their cronies in the Trump Administration, threatening our right to a healthy environment in the United States.
Fortunately, we have a chance to fight back against this brazen assault and defend our health and communities.
Most people have no clue what the National Environmental Policy Act is, but virtually everyone knows what it does.
Passed 50 years ago, the law ensures federal agencies analyze and fully disclose the environmental impacts of their activities. More importantly, it gives the public the right to be involved and to influence federal actions that may affect their environment.
Described as “our basic national charter for protection of the environment,” the National Environmental Policy Act has been a critical check on the activities of our federal government.
Often called NEPA (that’s pronounced “nee-puh”), the law enshrined the goal of environmental protection in the United States and enforced the need to involve the public in federal decisions. And since its passage, NEPA has worked tremendously.
It’s given communities a voice and sway when new highways are proposed through neighborhoods. It’s empowered local and state governments to stand up to federal agencies. It’s provided Tribes the tools needed to defend sacred lands. And it’s enabled watchdogs across the country to make a difference for people and the planet.
The law has truly been a ray of sunshine and for Americans.
For WildEarth Guardians, NEPA is absolutely key to protecting and restoring wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health in the American West.
For over 30 years, we’ve relied on the law to confront proposals by federal agencies to log old growth forests, dam rivers, decimate wildlife, destroy the climate, and desecrate sacred lands. We’ve relied on the law to mobilize support for safeguarding endangered species, protecting wilderness, and saving lands and waters throughout the American West.
Just last month, we filed suit in federal court to block the sale of nearly two million acres of public lands for fracking in five western states over the federal government’s failure to comply with NEPA. The case confronts the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s refusal to account for the climate impacts of authorizing more fossil fuel production and more greenhouse gas emissions.
For WildEarth Guardians, as well as countless other environmental, health, community, justice, Indigenous, and other advocates, NEPA is the backbone of our accountability efforts. It’s given us all the tools needed to stand up to private, often well-financed efforts to exploit our environment at the expense of our health and well-being.
Sadly, because groups like WildEarth Guardians have successfully used NEPA to defend our environment, it’s come under fire by polluters who view the law as an impediment to their ability to exploit communities and public resources.
Claiming the law is inefficient, cumbersome, and ineffective, corporate interests have for many years called for its gutting. Now, with Trump and his pro-polluter cadre in the White House, these interests are launching an unprecedented strike on our nation’s basic charter for environmental protection.
In a draft released on January 10, the White House Council on Environmental Quality published a proposed set of regulations that, if adopted, would effectively roll back and destroy NEPA as we know it (watch our recent Facebook Live check-in to learn more about these rollbacks).
The rules would completely rewrite regulations originally promulgated in 1982 and in doing so, completely upend our ability to hold our federal government accountable to protecting our environment. It’s not surprising that lobbyists for the nation’s polluters have described the rules as “exactly” what they recommended to the Trump administration.
Among the sweeping changes, the Trump administration’s proposal would:
- Strike language describing NEPA as “our nation’s basic charter for environmental protection” and instead describe the law as procedural and only requiring federal agencies to minimally disclose the environmental impacts of their actions;
- Severely restrict opportunities for public involvement in federal agency actions affecting the environment;
- In many situations, exempt federal agencies from having to complete environmental reviews;
- Let agencies shortcut environmental reviews and to reject science and public comments;
- Undermine transparency by allowing agencies to withhold environmental information from the public;
- Make it more difficult for watchdogs to enforce NEPA before administrative appeals boards or federal courts; and
- Prohibit federal agencies from analyzing and disclosing cumulative environmental impacts, or the impacts of their actions when added to the impacts of other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable activities.
That last proposed change is particularly distressing. The duty for the federal government to address the cumulative impacts of its actions is a critical and powerful means of ensuring agencies don’t worsen environmental problems, like climate change.
By eliminating the duty to account for cumulative impacts, the proposed changes would completely erase the federal government’s responsibility to protect our environment.
In keeping with the anti-public spirit of the proposal, the Council on Environmental Quality has also provided only 60 days for people to provide comments on the draft regulations and scheduled only two public hearings–one in Denver and one in Washington, D.C.–where only a little more than 100 people will be allowed to comment.
There’s no doubt that if approved, the proposed rules would effectively shut the American public out of the operations of the federal government, leaving our environment, our communities, our health, and our families more vulnerable than ever.
In response to Trump’s attack on NEPA, a massive coalition of advocates across the country are gearing up to fight back.
The resistance is kicking off in Denver, Colorado this Tuesday, February 11. That day, the Trump administration is holding its first of two public hearings on the proposed rollbacks.
While many will be speaking at the formal hearing, the Council on Environmental Quality provided only 112 speaking slots that were filled in less than five minutes due to extremely high demand. That’s why most people will be speaking and rallying across the street as part of the “Peoples Hearing to Protect NEPA,” an all-day action meant to uplift and empower the voices that were excluded by the Trump administration.
Groups are also pushing back in other critical ways. Last month, WildEarth Guardians joined hundreds of other groups in demanding the Trump administration extend the public comment period for the proposed rollbacks and calling for more public hearings.
Congressional leaders are also rising up to defend NEPA. In a bipartisan letter last month, U.S. Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado, a Democrat, and Representative Francis Rooney of Florida, a Republican, were joined by hundreds of other members of the U.S. House in calling on the Council on Environmental Quality to back down from the proposed rollbacks.
In the meantime, now, more than ever, we need your voice to help derail these terrible rollbacks to NEPA. If you haven’t yet, sign our petition and join thousands of others who are rising up to speak out for our environment and our voice.
Together, we can thwart Trump and his gang of polluters in the White House. Together, we can #ProtectNEPA.
I love beavers. Ever since I was a kid and watched them slap their tails defiantly, and loudly, to warn their clan of the threatening presence of large animals, I’ve thought beavers were worthy of my admiration. Then I realized they build dams too! As an aspiring dam builder myself, I figured beavers had more than a few things to teach me.
In fact, when the question of what is my favorite spirit animal arises, my response is almost always: beavers. They bring joy and gusto to their daily work and are quite content in mud and water. What’s not to admire?
So, when the opportunity came up in late September to be a beaver for a day with WildEarth Guardians’ restoration crew, I jumped at it—especially since I could bring along my energetic, six-year-old twin boys.
But what it exactly means to be a beaver for a day I did not know. I could only imagine that flowing water, willows, and mud had to be essential ingredients.
What I did know was that we were supposed to convene on the banks of San Antonio Creek—a meandering stream that sits at the bottom of a cleft in the volcanic uplift that is the Jemez Mountains. So, it was there that Wiley, Finn, and I found ourselves on a recent Saturday morning with another thirty souls who, I sensed, were likewise wondering whether they, too, could be adequate beavers for a day.
There, WildEarth Guardians’ restoration director, Reid Whittlesey, laid out our task. Standing next to a large pile of willows and rocks, he explained that our goal was to weave willow, and place rocks and mud. If we did it well, as our dam rose so, too, would the water.
The job of building these beaver dam analogues, or BDAs as they are known, was made easier by the placement of two dozen wooden posts that had been driven into the ground in a cross-crossed pattern across the stream. These posts, placed days earlier by Reid and his crew, provided the necessary foundation for each dam to rise.
And so a beaver clan, a crew of five or six people, was deployed to each of the six dam sites. For my boys—as it seemed for everyone—the excitement of the reality of dam-building overrode the hesitation that often comes with trying something new. In partnership with the other adults, the boys wove the willow back and forth between the poles and watched as others did the same.
Without it really being emphasized we had already embodied one of the critical qualities of beavers: collaboration amongst a family unit to accomplish a grand task.
And steadily each of the dams rose. Not on the scale of a New York City skyscraper, but rather like a humble, sod hut that once housed pioneers on the Great Plains. First one foot, then two feet and, in some cases, three or even four feet of willow, mud, sedge, and stone. Each dam was a unique creation and an imperfectly perfect monument—not to our ability to mimic the wisdom of beavers, but rather to our deep human yearning to heal damaged lands.
Of course, every story of healing and restoring the land and its grace, its beauty, and its dignity is also a story of trauma. For healing would not be necessary if there were no trauma. And this piece of the Santa Fe National Forest, this creek, has been deeply and repeatedly traumatized. Not by some massive and obvious threat, but rather by the insidious and ubiquitous presence of cattle grazing in otherwise arid landscapes.
Absent cows, there would be willows along the stream. And almost everywhere there are willows, beavers thrive. And where beavers thrive there is ecological dynamism, and the land sings, with the literal songs of flycatchers and frogs and with the slithering of snakes and the pattering of shrews and mice. And in the stream itself, native trout grow fatter and more abundant in the cooler, deeper waters that beaver dams create.
Here in New Mexico, there is a long list of endangered species that have been imperiled in the absence of beavers and that would benefit from their return. The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, the Southwest willow flycatcher are just a few.
Sadly, the need for BDAs and the return of beavers is not limited to San Antonio Creek. In 2016 ecologists found that beaver occupied fewer than 1% of potential stream habitats in New Mexico. They found the problem even worse on national forests in northern New Mexico, concluding “beaver dams were exceptionally rare on public lands managed for cattle grazing.” (Small et. al 2016, Livestock grazing limits beaver restoration in northern New Mexico, Restoration Ecology.)
But this story of the beaver apocalypse is not unique to New Mexico, nor even to the American West. Beavers have been extirpated from literally tens of thousands of miles of streams and small rivers—the victims of both trapping and habitat degradation. Those ecosystems suffer greatly in their absence.
Our hope, of course, is that beavers will return to San Antonio Creek and make these dams their own. But when and if they do there is yet another challenge they will face: the harsh, deadly reality of a body-crushing trap. On nearly all of New Mexico public lands, trapping is allowed. So as soon as beavers return to the San Antonio Creek, a weekend trapper could eliminate every last one in the entire watershed.
All of these unfortunate realities for beavers reflect antiquated policy dictated by outdated beliefs—that beavers are pests and nuisance animals that should be eliminated any time someone complains. Incredibly, the last time the state of New Mexico wildlife agency did a beaver inventory was in 1956, the year before the television show “Leave it to Beaver” debuted.
Sadly, we can’t just leave it to beavers anymore. And the work of building beaver dam analogues reflects that reality. If we are to heal our streams and make our water supplies more resilient in the face of an ever-warming planet, we need to get busy. We must create and pass new state and federal policies and practices that restore beavers and beaver habitat to every single mile of streams and rivers on national forests, national parks, and all our public lands.
All the beaver clichés aside, we are losing time, losing species, and losing our precious water supplies every day of our collective inaction. I feel urgency not only for the creatures, large and small, whose intrinsic right to exist is being trampled on, but also for my boys and their deep yearnings to see frogs, snakes, and jumping mice animate the wild places they grow up in.
Toward the end of our time as beavers, my boys and I retreated to our nearby campsite where we shared stories of our days’ feats around the fire. That night, we drifted off to sleep to the hooting calls of a pair of Mexican spotted owls nested in the remnant ancient fir and pine forest that cover the valley walls.
The next morning after packing up, we were about to get in the car when my boys proclaimed that we could not leave without one more inspection of “our” beaver dam. Much to their satisfaction, not only was the dam still intact, but the water level had risen noticeably since the previous afternoon. As their energy lingered, the boys hummed, gently sang, and chattered to themselves and to each other in contemplative satisfaction with their work. One walked back and forth across the dam while the other waded in and out of the now waist-deep water. Without further words, we headed back up stream and up the hill to our car. But before moving on, one of my boys said, “Dad, we need to come back and build more beaver dams!”
“Yes, we do,” I said. “Yes, we do.”
Additional photos from Guardians’ Restoration Director, Reid Whittlesey, below.
What the heck is rewilding? Ask and perhaps you’ll get responses like:
“Isn’t that when people run around in loincloths making fire with twigs?”
“Isn’t that the return of the woolly mammoth to North America?”
“Isn’t that the effort to exclude people from wilderness?”
The word “rewilding” does have a history with all of these things, but, like many words, its meaning has changed over time. At Guardians, we define rewilding as a healing—a healing of the scars cut across our public lands from decades of exploitation for corporate profit. Forests – logged to stumps. Rivers – blocked by dams. Lands – pierced by mines and pipelines. And roads built everywhere. Once all that could be easily taken was gone, the broken pieces were strewn across the landscape.
The wolves, grizzly bears, lynx, Chinook salmon, jumping mice, and even the Coral Pink Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle that we work hard to protect also need homes to live and prosper in. Sometimes these homes are rivers that are clean, cold, and connected. Other times, they’re lands with abundant food, places to hide, and areas to roam unharrassed. Rewilding is a way to refurbish these home lands and waters.
We humans need those places too. Social media tells us to #gooutside, #lovepubliclands, and to #unplug or #takeahike. We need places to breathe, to be quiet, or to laugh; to be with family and friends, and to pause under the towering bulk of 200-year-old trees or cacti. To disconnect from one component of life and connect to another.
Our rewilding work aims to erase the scars from over-extraction and to restore homelands—wild places. We work on policy, pushing the Forest Service nationally and regionally to keep restoration of lands and waters on their agenda. We work in local forests, reading through hundreds of pages of project proposals and then drafting comments. We work with many, many other nonprofits, supporting their efforts and asking for help with ours. We work in the courts, defending the rights of bull trout to swim in streams not clogged with sediment. And we work with Congress, speaking against bad bills and speaking for funding for restoration work on public lands.
Maybe we can’t return the woolly mammoth to North America, but we can make sure that bits of rivers and other bits of lands are rewilded—for the lesser prairie chicken, prairie dog, coyote, steelhead trout, caddisfly…and for us.