NEPA and the Connection to Wild Horse Management

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is meant to be a checks and balances system for any project that the government wants to pursue which could impact the human environment. The process of completing Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements has long been described as arduous and so complex that it causes inconvenient delay to progress. Under the current administration, the goal has been to “streamline” the NEPA process, but unfortunately that has led to potentially harmful cuts that would largely weaken the original purpose of the statute itself.

At the end of November, The Hill reported that Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management, William Perry Pendley, was proud of the way the agency has changed the environmental review process. These changes will only continue if the agency is allowed to move West - where the Hill also reported that the BLM’s NEPA team will be fragmented across the country; a development that can only make the environmental review process more disjointed and ineffective.  

Back in August of 2018, AWHC submitted comments to Council on Environmental Quality’s Update to the Regulations for Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (CEQ-2018-0001) and explained the potential issues with the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The Rulemaking was a transparent attempt by CEQ and this administration to weaken the NEPA regulations for no reason. If any changes are going to be made, AWHC asked that CEQ instead consider making the environmental review process more robust in order to better protect the human environment rather than weakening the standards in order for the process to be softer on big industry.

Our specific concerns included:

  • Public comment periods should remain no less than 30 days and all comments should continue to be published electronically.
  • Wild horse and burro management activities must be formally recognized as a major federal action and explicitly stated as not subject to a categorical exclusion.
  • Cumulative impacts must be analyzed in detail during the NEPA process so that each proposed project considers the cumulative impact it will cause to the environment.
  • All conflicts of interest standards must remain in place for contractors.
  • The timing of agency actions in the review process must remain the same so that the public maintains a meaningful opportunity to participate in the NEPA process.
  • All reasonable alternatives must be considered in detail so that the public can meaningfully participate in the process and so the agency can choose the alternative that is best for the environment.
  • At the same time, AWHC also submitted a Freedom of Information Act request aimed at obtaining decision documents related to the Rulemaking. In November 2019, the Council on Environmental Quality provided AWHC with an update on the status of this request. The agency is publishing responsive records to their website on a rolling basis and we will be monitoring the progress.

AWHC also continues to carefully monitor every environmental review document related to wild horses and burros. This work is especially critical after Acting Chief of the Wild Horse and Burro program, Bruce Rittenhouse, stated at the recent Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board meeting that the agency’s preferred “streamline” approach to the wild horse NEPA actions would be to analyze the use of multiple tools for a multi-year time period in potentially multiple Herd Management Areas (HMAs) - all in one NEPA process. This approach is in place of conducting a NEPA review process for each action in an individual HMA. Unsurprisingly, he also stated that the end goal of the agency’s environmental review remains the same - to get to and maintain the unscientific Appropriate Management Levels in every HMA.

AWHC has consistently seen an uptick in 10 year-long Environmental Assessments from the BLM, and more often those assessments are analyzing more “tools” and bunching HMAs together. For example, a recent scoping notice released from the BLM proposes to analyze five HMAs in one 10 year plan with several methods for management on the list to be analyzed - including spay. [AWHC will be submitting comments in response to this notice, and you can too. Information on where to submit comments can be found in the scoping notice, and comments are due by December 20th.]

Brieanah Schwartz, AWHC Policy Counsel