NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act)

NEPA and the Planning Process

Flow chart depicting the NEPA Process

The Ashley National Forest is about to begin “the NEPA process.”*

  • The first step in the NEPA process, known as the “scoping” period, is when you can comment on the Ashley National Forest’s preliminary proposal and say what you think are important issues for the Ashley to consider.  We expect scoping to begin in May and scoping will last 60 days.
  • After that, the Ashley National Forest will continue its land management plan, analyze the environmental effects of the plan (as well as alternatives) in a detailed document called an environmental impact statement.
  • The Ashley National Forest will then make the draft EIS available for public review and comment. You will have at least 90 days to comment on the proposed plan and draft EIS for a plan revision.

*The Ashley National Forest is in the second step in the process shown on the graphic, the “Notice to Start Plan Development” phase.



Citzen's Guide to the National Environmental Policy Act

Below is an abreviated version of the Citizen's Guide

Explaining the NEPA Process

     NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) was the first major environmental law in the U.S. and established our environmental policies.  Signed into law in January, 1970, NEPA requires federal agencies to consider the potential environmental impacts of their proposed actions - and any reasonable alternatives - before beginning more federal action.  NEPA comes into play with: government construction projects, plans to develop and manage federally owned lands, highways, federal approvals of non-federal activities (grants, licenses, permits, etc.), and when other government (federal, state or local) activities are proposed – as long as they use federal funding.  The Federal Government takes hundreds of actions every day that are, in some way, covered by NEPA.  To ensure NEPA compliance, Congress established the Council on Environmental Quality (in the Executive Office of the President).  It is worth noting that NEPA does not apply to the President, Congress or Federal courts.

     In 1978, the CEQ issued binding regulations directing agencies on the fundamental requirements necessary to fulfill NEPA obligations – minimal requirements for the agencies.  The CEQ regulations mandate that agencies create their own implementing procedures to supplement NEPA regulations if the agencies’ needs require more regulations.  These agency-specific NEPA procedures account for the slight differences in agencies’ NEPA processes.

     The NEPA environmental review process on an issue can help in understanding what the Federal agency is proposing, and can help the public be involved in the decision process.  Because NEPA implementation is an important responsibility of the Federal Government, many Federal agencies have offices dedicated strictly to NEPA policy and oversight.  Agencies are required to develop their own capacity - in abiding by NEPA - to develop their own analysis, policies, and NEPA related documents to ensure informed decision-making.  Most agencies put their NEPA documents online, for public access.  NEPA applies when a Federal agency has discretion to choose among one or more alternative means of accomplishing a goal.

     As the information in the Ashley National Forest Proposed Plan will be used to start the Ashley Forest Plan Revision NEPA process, scoping is used help determine the significance of the information in the plan.  Scoping is getting public reaction to the proposed plan, the process called scoping because is it considered getting to the “scope” of the issue.  Information that comes from scoping on the issues, that is not deemed important enough for further study, will become a categorical exclusion.  Information that is deemed significant for further study will be used in an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement.

Categorical Exclusion: Action(s) that individually or cumulatively do not have a significant effect on the environment.  Analysis shows the potential action(s) would have no extraordinary circumstances.  Examples of extraordinary circumstances include: being on a federal list of endangered species or habitat; having an effect on floodplains, wetlands or water areas; having an effect on potential wilderness areas or recreation areas; having an effect on archeological or historical areas, etc.  An action can be deemed an extraordinary circumstance, but still stay a CE if the responsible official deems the effect of the action is still insignificant.

Environmental Assessment: A document that helps determine whether an EIS or Finding of No Significant Impact* is required.  The document should include a brief assessment of the proposed action and an analysis of evidence relating to significant environmental impacts.  The document should also include an analysis of the effects of the proposed action.  The EA should also help in preparing an EIS if an EIS is deemed necessary.

Environmental Impact Statement: An EIS is prepared if the EA finds that there may be a significant impact caused by a proposed federal action that cannot be mitigated.  The responsible official decides whether an EIS is required, in order to meet NEPA requirements.  An EIS analyzes all environmental impacts of a proposed federal action, alternatives to the proposed action, and mitigation measures (preferred alternatives).  An EIS should also describe the purpose and need for the proposed action.

     The official who makes the final decision on the matter will review the EIS before making that decision (but is not required to select the preferred alternative).  A Record of Decision is then issued, which records the agency’s final decision.

*Finding of No Significant Impact: FONSI is a document that briefly explains why an action will have no significant impact

The NEPA Process

     The NEPA process begins when an agency develops a proposal to address a need to take an action.  The need may be identified by the agency, or the public (such as an application for a permit).  Based on the need, the agency develops a proposal for action.

     Some larger or more complex proposals involve more than one Federal agency, and can include State and Local government, and Tribal agencies.  If one Federal agency is involved, it is the lead agency, so it has primary responsibility for NEPA compliance.  If multiple agencies are involved, the agency is a “joint lead agency,” meaning the agencies share NEPA compliance responsibilities.  Other agencies that have smaller roles (due to their expertise on an issue, for example) are cooperating agencies.

     Once an agency develops a proposed action, the agency begins the initial analytical approach.  This approach helps the agency decide whether to choose a CE, EA, or EIS.

CE: Examples of a CE are: administrative personnel actions, minor facility renovations, reconstructing hiking trails on public lands.  An agency’s CE is usually based on its experience with a specific kind of action over time and its environmental effects.  The agency may have already studied an action and found it to be a CE.  If this type of action will be repeated over time, the agency may list it in its regulations as a CE.  Agencies develop a list of CEs, specific to their missions, when they develop or update their NEPA implementing procedures (in accordance with NEPA rules).

EA: An EA is intended as a concise document that gives sufficient evidence in deciding whether an EIS is needed.  An EA should include:

  • The need for the proposal
  • Alternative courses of action which involve unresolved conflicts concerning alternative uses of available resources
  • The environmental impacts of the proposed action and alternatives, and a list of agencies and personnel consulted
  • Concludes with either a FONSI or a decision to start an EIS

EIS: An EIS is a proposal, based on an EA, for a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.  The regulatory requirements of an EIS are greater than either the CE or EA.


Environmental Impact Statement

     The EIS process begins with an NOI (Notice of Intent).  The NOI is published in the Federal Register (official journal of the Federal government that contains rules, proposed rules, and government notices), and states the agency’s intent to start an EIS for a particular proposal.  The NOI briefly describes the proposed action and possible alternatives.  The NOI also lists the agency point of contact for both the proposed action and NEPA.

     The NOI also describes the agency’s proposed scoping process and how the public can get involved.  The goal of scoping is to find the scope of the issues that will be included in the EIS.  Scoping specifically:

  • Identifies people and organizations that are interested in the proposed action(s)
  • Identifies the significant issues
  • Eliminate insignificant issues or issues that were covered in previous environmental reviews
  • Determine lead & cooperating agencies and their responsibilities
  • Identify any related EAs or EISs
  • Identify data gaps and information needs
  • Set time limits for the process, and page limits for the EIS
  • Integrate any related environmental reviews with this EIS
  • Make tentative decision-making schedule, based on EA
  • Get the public involved


Draft EIS

     A key part of the draft EIS is the statement of underlying purpose and need.  Agencies draft a Purpose and Need statement to explain the desired outcome of proposing an action, why an agency action is necessary.  The statement is the basis in identifying reasonable alternatives that meet the purpose and need.  This identification and evaluation is the heart of the NEPA analysis.

     Two types of alternatives an agency must analyze are the “no action alternative” and the “preferred alternative.”  The “no action alternative” is an analysis of what would happen if an agency took no action on a proposal.  A “preferred alternative” is when an agency prefers one of the alternatives.  All agencies must identify a preferred alternative in the final EIS, unless a law says otherwise.  The final part of the analysis that the DEIS must contain is the description of the environment that would be affected by the various alternatives.


Final EIS

     When the public comment period is finished, and after the Ashley National Forest specialists analyze the information, the Ashley will prepare the Final EIS.  The final EIS is the Ashley’s response to public comments and those of other government agencies (agencies may comment because they may be affected by the proposed action).  The Ashley response to public comments could be in the form of updating the EIS or just noting that the specialist reviewed the comments.  A copy of the comments, and response to them, will be included in the final EIS.  The Environmental Protection Agency is required to review the EIS to rate the adequacy of the analysis.  The EPA is rating the analysis to see if the analysis and decision are environmentally sound.

     When the Ashley National Forest completes its final EIS, the Ashley will publish the document, and the EPA will publish a Notice of Availability in the Federal Register.  The Notice of Availability is the start of a (minimum) 30 day waiting period.  The decision maker must wait at least 30 days before making a decision on the proposed action, to give the person plenty of time to think about all the factors addressed in the report, concerning the proposed action.


Record of Decision

     The ROD concludes the EIS process by publishing the final decision.  The ROD states what the final decision is, and lists the factors the decision maker took into account in making the decision.  The ROD tells why the person decided in this fashion, discusses the other alternatives (including the preferred alternative if it wasn’t picked), and any other factors that were part of the decision.  These factors could include political, national policy, environmental, or any other consideration that was considered in making this decision.  The ROD also states if all practical means of minimizing or avoiding environmental harm have been used, and why not if any weren’t.


Supplemental EIS

     An agency may have to prepare a supplemental EIS if the EIS makes substantial changes to the proposed action relating to environmental concerns.  The difference with a supplemental EIS is that no scoping is required.


EPA Review

     The NEPA process is not yet finished.  The Environmental Protection Agency is required by Federal law to review the analysis and the impact to the environment of the EIS.  The EPA summarizes its recommendations to the lead agency, and refers its review to the CEQ if the EPA finds the analysis unsatisfactory.  If the EPA finds the analysis satisfactory, the process is then finished.



Key Contacts

Cathleen Neelan, Forest Plan Revision Team Leader