Understanding The National Environmental Policy Act

Olivia Guethling

ACTION ALERT: If you want to see robust planning, broad public participation and rigorous science guiding decisions about our public lands and environment, please join ONDA in opposing the Trump administration’s attacks on NEPA.

What is the National Environmental Policy Act?

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 is the federal law that requires federal agencies to plan carefully for conservation and management of our public lands and natural resources and involve the public in every step of the process.

Among conservation organizations, the act commonly known as NEPA (pronounced “NEEP-ah”) provides opportunities to submit scientific research and data and other relevant information to agencies to ensure that planning considers all potential impacts of proposed management actions on the environment.

Thank you, flower children!

President Nixon signed NEPA into law following the post-war era uptick of industrialization and unregulated pollution. Like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and other bedrock environmental laws of the era, NEPA was designed to support planning for a clean and healthy environment in response to a growing cultural awareness of the environment and its importance for individuals and communities.

Congress recognized that nearly all federal activities affect the environment in some way, and, in enacting NEPA, it mandated federal agencies to consider the environmental effects of their proposed actions in planning and decision-making processes.

Managing for multiple use

NEPA is essential to proper management of public lands, waters and wildlife. While the law doesn’t dictate what is or isn’t allowed in managing these resources, it does require federal agencies to consider a breadth of management alternatives before settling on a final decision—and involve the public in every phase of the decision-making.

Many ONDA members will remember the threat posed by inappropriate wind energy development on Steens Mountain years ago. ONDA successfully prevented agencies from finalizing that poorly conceived project through active participation in the NEPA process. Volunteers, staff and experts provided credible scientific information and personal experience to the Bureau of Land Management about why wind turbines on Steens were a bad idea. In the end, the decision to permit those turbines was invalidated so that iconic Steens Mountain and its important wildlife habitat remain intact. All of that was possible because of NEPA and its associated regulations.

What’s happening to NEPA under the Trump administration?

In January 2020, the Trump Administration, in one of its most aggressive and troubling attacks on our environment to date, announced new proposed regulations that would undermine the fundamental purposes of NEPA to ensure comprehensive and transparent planning and management of our natural resources.

The new rules would:

  • limit the scope of NEPA in federal planning processes and the extent of management alternatives considered
  • eliminate the need to consider long-term, “cumulative” impacts of proposed actions, and
  • reduce citizens’ ability to challenge poorly planned projects nationwide.


Craig Terry, ONDA member and stewardship volunteer

Craig Terry, ONDA member and stewardship volunteer

“The people I have had the privilege to share time with each season keep me volunteering again and again. Who else but those ONDA staff leaders would make fresh coffee at dawn each morning or pack a watermelon all day to serve as a reward under a juniper in a steep canyon?” Craig, who grew up in northwestern Nevada, says ONDA connects him with places he loves and a mission he believes in. “My grandfather and his father put up wire fences for their ranching needs. Taking out barbed wire sort of completes a circle for me.”


The Land Between: The Greater Hart-Sheldon Region

The Land Between: The Greater Hart-Sheldon Region


Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva, ODT thru-hiker 2017

Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva, ODT thru-hiker 2017

“To me, it’s a thru-hike in an isolated place that promotes a conversation in land management, ethics and usage. Hiking across a vast and remote landscape and having a random and chance encounter with cowboys and hunters to discuss how ‘all of us’ should treat the land, how we all have a responsibility, no matter our political leanings, really showed me the pulse of the people in rural areas, especially here out west.”