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Environmental 'Magna Carta' law under fire

A law that subjects all federal projects to an environmental-impact study faces review.

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What do whales off the Pacific Coast, fire-blackened forests in Colorado, and farmers in Oregon's Klamath Basin have in common? All are involved in lawsuits centered on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – the most sweeping of all US environmental laws.

This means they're also involved in a political confrontation over the future of a law that the Bush administration wants to rein in and environmentalists are fighting to preserve.

Signed into law 32 years ago by Richard Nixon, NEPA has been called "the Magna Carta of environmental laws." It's championed by activists who use it as a legal lever to expose – and in some cases halt – environmentally damaging development proposals. But developers see it as an unfair roadblock to legitimate projects. And it's a source of frustration for some government-agency officials. They complain that the law produces "analysis paralysis," preventing them from effectively managing hundreds of millions of acres of federal land.

Under NEPA, federal agencies have to study all the environmental impacts that every proposed federal project might have. That includes deciding whether the Navy can boom the depths of the sea with advanced sonar, figuring out how to repair the more than 6 million acres of federal land that burned this summer, and making Solomon-like allotments of scarce water to farmers and fish threatened with extinction.

Agencies must gather public comment and consider the alternatives before going ahead with any project. In essence, it's a kind of "sunshine law," opening the political process involving environmental decisions to all Americans. Anyone – from a single grass-roots conservationist to the powerful Sierra Club with its own lawyers – can delay (if not squelch) a development project by filing legal appeals.

Now, even as courts look likely to settle some of the political debates that have arisen as a result of the law, the Bush administration wants to streamline NEPA.

Earlier this year, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) set up a task force of federal agency officials whose goal, says CEQ chairman James Connaughton, is to "move federal environmental analysis and NEPA documentation into the 21st century." This process is expected to take several months, and it draws heavily on public comment from a wide range of interests that could be affected.

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