Understanding The National Environmental Policy Act

Olivia Guethling

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.


Young Desert Horned Lizard

Young Desert Horned Lizard

In the summer these lizards begin foraging for food as soon as their body temperature rises as the heat of the day increases. They feed on slow-moving, ground-dwelling insects. In the fall they hibernate by burying themselves in the sand.

Latin name: Phrysonoma platyrhinos


Owyhee Canyon Swallows Sparrows and Rushing Water

Owyhee Canyon Swallows Sparrows and Rushing Water


Elisa Cheng, member since 2013

Elisa Cheng, member since 2013

“ONDA stewardship trips inspire me. I get to learn new things and see new places, and in the process perform important work that improves the wildlife habitat.”