NEPA Enacted (1970)

On January 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, now known universally by its acronym—NEPA.  NEPA is considered Magna Carta for the  environment in the United States.

NEPA is a remarkably short law—only 7 pages—considering the major impact that it has had on government actions.  When passed, the law accomplished three things.  First, it established “a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment.”  Second, it established a Council on Environmental Quality in the White House to oversee all environmental matters; this was intended to be the major action item in the law.  Third, it required every significant government action to be accompanied by a statement of the impacts of that action; in practice, this has turned out to be the overwhelmingly most significant part of the law.

The law was the brainchild of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democrat from the state of Washington.  Jackson served in Congress for 43 years, first in the House of Representatives and later in the Senate.  During the 1960s, Jackson joined with others in the developing environmental movement.  Distressed particularly over conflicting government actions in the Everglades—Interior trying to protect the area as a national park while the Army Corps of Engineers tried to drain it—Jackson decided the nation needed a formal declaration of its intent to protect the environment and a mechanism to make sure government projects weren’t working at cross purposes.  The Council on Environmental Quality was to perform that role.

When first proposed in Congress, Jackson’s act did not include the idea of environmental impact statements.  But after passing with almost unanimous consent in both houses, the reconciliation process added the requirement for reviewing every major action for its environmental consequences.  Later observers have suggested that the act would never have passed had Jackson or other legislators understood what the environmental impact statement would become.  Nonetheless, it passed overwhelmingly.

President Nixon signed the bill with great fanfare.  He noted on signing that it was “particularly fitting that my first official act in this new decade is to approve the National Environmental Policy Act.”  Casting the law as an anti-pollution measure, Nixon said, “The 1970s must absolutely be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and our living environment.  It is literally now or never.”

Indeed, the time was now.  NEPA had immediate far-ranging impacts.  It spawned a series of environmental organizations, like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, that began to sue the government for its failure to comply with the law.  These lawsuits established that environmental impact statements needed to be serious, comprehensive and expertly performed analyses, not back-of-the-envelope bureaucratic paperwork.  Consequently, hundreds of federal projects in the initial years were stopped or stalled.  The Army Corps of Engineers estimated that in the first five years of NEPA, 350 of its projects had been stopped, delayed or changed because of the law.  Today, of course, federal agencies take environmental impacts seriously, and have incorporated them as core elements of their planning.

Initially, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) also played a major role in establishing and directing federal environmental policy.  The large series of environmental laws passed during the 1970s were often led by the CEQ.  Since then, however, as new agencies, programs and staffs were established to implement those laws (notably the Environmental Protection Agency itself), the CEQ has become peripheral to the nation’s overall environmental programming.

References:

Alm, Alvin L.  1988.  NEPA:  Past, Present, and Future.  EPA Web Archive.  Available at:  https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/1988-article-nepa-past-present-and-future.html.  Accessed January 2, 2018.

Energy.gov.  The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.  Available at:  https://energy.gov/nepa/downloads/national-environmental-policy-act-1969.  Accessed January 2, 2018.

Kershner, Jim.  2011.  NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act.  History Link, 8/272011.  Available at:  http://www.historylink.org/File/9903.  Accessed January 2, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

January 1
NEPA Enacted (1970)
January 2
Bob Marshall Born (1901)
January 3
Canaveral National Seashore Created (1975)
January 4
The Real James Bond Born (1900)
January 5
National Bird Day
January 6
Wild Kingdom First Airs (1963)
January 7
Gerald Durrell Born (1925)
January 8
Alfred Russel Wallace Born (1823)
January 9
Muir Woods National Monument Created (1908)
January 10
National Houseplant Appreciation Day
January 11
Aldo Leopold Born (1887)
January 12
National Trust of England Established (1895)
January 13
MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, Born (1935)
January 14
Martin Holdgate Born (1931)
January 15
British Museum Opened (1795)
January 16
Dian Fossey Born (1932)
January 17
Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)
January 18
White Sands National Monument Created (1933)
January 19
Yul Choi, Korean Environmentalist, Born (1949)
January 19
Acadia National Park Established (1929)
January 20
Penguin Appreciation Day
January 21
The Wilderness Society Founded (1935)
January 22
Iraq Sabotages Kuwaiti Oil Fields (1991)
January 23
Sweden Bans CFCs in Aerosols (1978)
January 24
Baden-Powell Publishes “Scouting for Boys” (1908)
January 25
Badlands National Park Established (1939)
January 26
Benjamin Franklin Disses the Bald Eagle (1784)
January 27
National Geographic Society Incorporated (1888)
January 28
Bermuda Petrel, Thought Extinct for 300 Years, Re-discovered (1951)
January 29
Edward Abbey, author of “Desert Solitaire,” Born (1927)
January 30
England Claims Antarctica (1820)
January 31
Stewart Udall, Secretary of Interior, Born (1920)
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