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The New West: America’s most important environmental acronym is now under a fierce attack



CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

When navigating the wild backcountry, do you think it prudent to look before you leap?

In federal public land management decisions, this concept is also known as the precautionary principle, and it’s all about assessing risk in order to avoid injury.

In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the wildest complex of public lands in the Lower 48 distinguished for its large wildlife populations found nowhere else, it means fully understanding the consequences of particular actions.

Part of the precautionary principle involves asking important questions and expecting those in charge of permitting actions to answer them—to acknowledge what they know and what they don’t know.

If a company, for example, desires to cover tens of thousands of acres of public land with hundreds or thousands of natural gas wells, roads, pumping stations, pipeline and other infrastructure, will it be detrimental for, say, public wildlife such as pronghorn, greater sage-grouse, mule deer, elk and other animals?

Or suppose a state agency applies for a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to operate controversial wildlife feed grounds for, let’s say elk, knowing the well-documented risk for spreading deadly diseases to wildlife. The precautionary principle suggests it isn’t smart to dismiss the concern and simply pray something bad won’t happen.

Or, consider a more recent phenomenon: green lighting the proliferation of recreation uses without actually knowing what the impacts will be for sensitive wildlife and habitat security, especially as said uses swell in number of participants, intensity and conflicts.

Claiming ignorance is not acceptable. It makes as much sense as a climber rappelling with a fixed length of rope yet not knowing if, while descending a cliff, it will deliver you safely to the next mountain ledge.

The mandate to make the precautionary principle a priority did not come about by accident, but by historic trial and error—and a record of environmental destruction.

The Berkeley Pit in Butte, a toxic Superfund site born of copper mining, is an example of a disaster that might not have happened had the National Environmental Policy Act been in place when mining started in the late 1800s. Instead, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to clean up the legacy of pollution stretching from Butte down the Clark Fork River. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY

In the West there are tens of thousands of river miles sullied by hard rock mining wastes because the precautionary principle was never applied. There are underwater aquifers that have been contaminated. There are huge stretches of public lands that, while management is supposed to theoretically be “multiple use,” are actually single use because one activity—one special interest— actually trumps the rest.

The tenets of the precautionary principle were codified when a group of politically moderate lawmakers came together and placed a forward-thinking law on the desk of a Republican president.

On Jan. 1, 1970, Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which compels land managers serving the interests of the American people and charged with protecting environmental health, to be accountable, transparent, to make decisions based on science and to not do things by the seat or their pants or be corrupted by political pressure.

Prior to NEPA, many land management decisions were focused primarily only on short-term economic considerations. The 48-year-old law gave the public a voice in scrutinizing decisions, says Timothy Preso, a nationally distinguished environmental attorney who works for Earthjustice in Bozeman, Montana.

Preso notes that it is a law intended to reflect all major sides of an issue, and he points out that the timber industry invoked NEPA to challenge protection of roadless lands. “Public involvement, through NEPA, is a right Americans have that has been hard won,” he says.

Today, efforts are underway in Congress to weaken or gut key provisions of NEPA, and if those attempts are successful, experts say, it will result in resetting the clock backward on environmental protection. It’s safe to say that President Donald Trump has little grasp or interest in what NEPA is, or how and why it came on the books.

A key NEPA provision calls upon citizens who value nature and clean environments to get involved, and it was Congress itself that welcomed such involvement: “The Congress recognizes that each person should enjoy a healthful environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.”

NEPA has been attacked by some lawmakers who receive campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry as being excessively onerous, riddled with red tape requirements, too costly and burdensome to agencies having to comply. And yet two of the greatest things hobbling NEPA compliance is a lack of adequate staffing to conduct reviews, and cutbacks to science and research.

Not only is this president’s overt environmental illiteracy, disdain for science and regulation well known, but it’s shared by some members of Congress who are advancing bills that never would have passed muster when moderates held sway on Capitol Hill.

Having a clean and healthful environment, for people and wildlife, is not a mere privilege, Preso notes. It is a right, and when NEPA was written, Republicans and Democrats saw its provisions as an important part of representative democracy.

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (, is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.

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