By David Loomis & Jay Strand
“Iterative and collaborative design are complementary, as at each increment various stakeholders are consulted. These methods do not map easily to the policy maze and institutional hierarchies that currently make up the apparatus of . . . planning.” – Anil Bawa-Cavia
In 1970, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requiring federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of management actions and to provide for public participation in the process. Although public involvement is a keystone of the law, agencies often focus more on NEPA’s procedural requirements—public and stakeholder engagement during formal scoping or comment periods—at the expense of truly engaging with the public in a collaborative manner for environmental decision making. This focus on procedure downplays the importance of agencies and citizens working together to make good decisions about how our public lands should be managed.
To address this concern, in 2008 the Forest Service updated their NEPA regulations to encourage a more open, transparent and collaborative approach. Iterative NEPA, dubbed “iNEPA” by practitioners, is an incremental process of improving proposed land management actions and alternatives through frequent engagement with stakeholders and the public. This allows agencies to focus on a set of reasonable alternatives developed in collaboration with stakeholders as opposed to analyzing an extensive range of options that would be difficult or impossible to implement. In turn, this process can increase efficiency and limit polarization among constituents and communities. At the same time, the process honors public involvement and collaboration by adjusting agency proposals in response to public feedback, comments and concerns.
iNEPA builds trust, improves decision making efficiency, and builds capacity among and within agencies and stakeholder groups. But formal on-the-ground applications have been slow to come. Fear of lawsuits has caused some practitioners to avoid modifying their proposals during the NEPA process. As a result, they tend to add more, often unworkable, alternatives to the document, consequently adding bulk, increasing costs and delaying decisions.
You might be thinking “iterative schmiterative” – what’s in it for me? Well, here are a couple of real life examples that demonstrate its effectiveness.
- The Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan used an iterative process to address parking issues related to its Grand Island National Recreation Area. Public collaboration led the Forest Service to iterative improvements to the proposed action, including vegetative screening, additional long term parking, coordinating parking time limits to the ferry schedule, and improving fill and drainage structures. The process provided more meaningful engagement with constituents while providing the agency with valuable local knowledge and ideas, which saved them time and money.
- The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in California used an iNEPA process to improve its proposal for snowmobile management in the West Hoover area of the Sierra Nevada. Previous management was unclear and inconsistent which led to trespassing, including in Yosemite National Park wilderness area. Public concerns about the size and scope of the initial proposal prompted iterative improvements to narrow the proposed snowmobiling area from 40,000 acres to 7,000 acres and focus the project on winter use only, rather than tackle year-round travel management. These and other iterative improvements were made in response to valuable collaboration with stakeholders.
Are there any red flags in using iNEPA?
- Be prepared for FACAphobia. This is fear of the Federal Advisory Committee Act—which requires federal agencies to establish official committees when seeking consensus recommendations from stakeholder groups. The fear applies to all collaborative processes, including iNEPA, because its expensive and time consuming to create a Federal Advisory Committee. For iterative NEPA, agencies can avoid FACAphobia by working with committees established by States or NGOs.
- Don’t make iterations too big. If a change in a proposal is so significant that meaningful public involvement has been precluded, then you are beyond iNEPA and must prepare a costly and time consuming Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement. Agencies should ensure that there are opportunities for the public to respond to each iterative change.
- Include a reasonable range of alternatives. iNEPA does not exempt agencies from the requirement to rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives. Agencies can iteratively, and in collaboration with other stakeholders, focus on a proposed action that meets the needs of its stakeholders, but they must also continue to analyze a reasonable range of alternatives. Agencies should ensure stakeholders understand their requirements from the start.
Over the last 40 years, NEPA has improved transparency and inclusiveness of federal environmental decision making by requiring agencies to notify and involve the public. Looking to the future, federal decision making can be even more effective by incorporating modern decision science. Iterative NEPA encourages agencies to adapt and modify proposals in response to what they learn during analysis and collaborative engagement processes—thus saving federal employees time and tax payer’s money.
David Loomis, AICP is the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional Environmental Program Manager. A graduate of California State University, Chico and the University of Nevada, Reno, he has 30 years of experience in managing NEPA projects for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. He has just taken up mountain biking and has not broken any bones yet.
Jay Strand is the Forest Service’s Green Mountain National Forest Environmental Coordinator in Rochester, VT. He graduated from Oklahoma State and has been managing NEPA projects for 25 years. Jay is balancing a great career with the Forest Service with a gorgeous place to live in Vermont.