How NEPA Changed Minds and Management
It took ten years, but on July 22, 2003, the
managers of the Wallowa-Whitman National
Forest (W-WNF) showed they hold a deeper
appreciation and understanding of Hells Canyon
than they did in September 1993.
You wouldn’t think it would take a decade to
finally express protectiveness toward what may be
the deepest river-cut canyon in North America
(Kings Canyon in California may be just as deep).
Or to commit to preservation of the spectacular
native bunchgrass lands that survive on the
canyon’s plunging walls, when nearly all native
grasslands in the West have been destroyed. You
wouldn’t think it would take a decade to acknowledge
that vehicles and livestock running willy-nilly
on slopes, in meadows, and across streams might
not be compatible with the canyon’s salmon
streams and rare plants. But it did, and the steps it
took to bring about this change are worth repeating
on public lands throughout the world.
A bit of background
Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
(HCNRA) sprawls its 652,000 acres across three
national forests in northeastern Oregon and
western Idaho. Administered by the W-WNF in
Oregon, the HCNRA surrounds and includes 67
miles of Wild and Scenic-status Snake River and the
214,000-acre Hells Canyon Wilderness. It starts low
with desert-like conditions at the Snake River,
climbs up through grassy slopes and forested
crevices, levels out on benches and plateaus of
forest and meadow, and finally rises into the
rarified alpine ecosystems of Idaho’s Seven Devils
When, in September 1993, W-WNF Supervisor
Bob Richmond grudgingly agreed to revise the
original (1982) HCNRA Comprehensive Management
Plan (CMP), he clearly intended to uphold
"Good Old Boy Business As Usual:" Road and
motorized developments, off-road travel, logging,
and cattle and sheep grazing. But ten years later,
W-WNF Supervisor Karyn Wood’s Record of
Decision for the new CMP included eliminating one-third
of the roads; closing three key canyon-edge
and ridge-top roads throughout the fall hunting
season, winter and spring; designating all other
roads closed unless posted open; withdrawing the historic permission
to drive stock trucks, RVs, pickups and ATVs 300 feet out from
either side of every open road; and limiting the canyon’s 55 roaded
subwatersheds to no more than 1.35 road miles per square mile of
land (many have less). In addition, her decision abolished one-quarter
million acres of livestock allotments, transforming them into
protected native grasslands. (These livestock allotments did not
have current permitees, but earlier plans had been to expand adjacent
allotments to include parts of these so-called "vacant" allotments.)
What led to this Record of Decision?
1. Legislation that requires human activities to be compatible with
the long-term health of HCNRA ecosystems.
The 1975 HCNRA Act states that human activities such as
logging, grazing, mining, and recreation are allowed in Hells Canyon
to the degree they are compatible with wildlife habitat, rare and
endemic plants, free-flowing rivers, cultural artifacts, and outstanding
ecosystems and parts of ecosystems. Anything less than this commitment
allows degradation and destruction of public ecosystems.
2. The National Environmental Policy Act’s (NEPA’s) requirement
that "a full range of reasonable alternatives" be "rigorously
explore[d] and objectively evaluate[d]" in environmental impact
statements (EISs) for any federal decisions that may significantly
affect the environment.
There is no wiser law than one that requires consideration of a
full range of alternatives. The NEPA regulations state that consideration
of alternatives is "the heart of the environmental impact
statement." After all, the only way we’ll stop destroying the earth is to
consider (and implement) alternatives to the way we’re behaving,
e.g., our proliferation of roads and off-road vehicles.
3. Drafting by citizens and scientists of a reasonable alternative.
In January 1994, ten people representing two tribes; eight
national, regional, state, and local conservation organizations
(including Wildlands CPR); a state hunting organization; and two
individual experts, joined together as the Hells Canyon CMP Tracking
Group. We notified the Wallowa-Whitman NF that we were going to
write an ecosystem-based alternative to be considered in the upcoming
Draft EIS for the HCNRA CMP. The Tracking Group met for a threeday
marathon to begin drafting our alternative, and I agreed to
facilitate pulling together the disparate pieces into one comprehensive
alternative. We named our alternative what it is: the Native
Ecosystem Alternative. (We figured that calling it a "Citizens’ Alternative"
(1) would marginalize the alternative; and (2) didn’t describe the
4. Backing the alternative with scientific evidence.
When we submitted the Native Ecosystem Alternative to the WWNF,
we also submitted hard copies of 116 scientific documents that
provided evidence we believed the W-WNF needed to use when
analyzing all alternatives in the Draft EIS. In addition, we supplied a
60-page bibliography summarizing the main findings, relevance, and significance of each of the documents. We did this
because NEPA requires agencies to insure the
"scientific integrity" of their EIS discussions and
analyses. NEPA regulation 1502.24 requires
agencies to "identify any methodologies used
and...make explicit reference by footnote to the
scientific and other sources relied upon for
conclusions in the [EIS]."
5. Having a responsive U.S. Forest Service and
a responsive public.
In February 1996 the first Draft EIS (DEIS) was
released, but with no Native Ecosystem Alternative.
The W-WNF gave bogus reasons for not including it;
but an appeal to the Regional Forester brought no
help. Karyn Wood became W-WNF’s Supervisor in
1997, but she didn’t want to dump two years’ DEIS
work. Six days before the Final EIS was to go to the
printer, I met with a number of then-Chief Mike
Dombeck’s Forest Service staff in Washington DC
and a member of the Council on Environmental
Quality, the executive branch office that oversees
compliance with NEPA. That afternoon the Forest
Service notified Karyn Wood that the DEIS should
have included the Native Ecosystem Alternative
because it was both reasonable and different from
W-WNF alternatives. Supervisor Wood agreed to
start all over with a new DEIS.
In December 1999, the second DEIS was
released. It included our alternative and a new one
by the Wallowa County Commissioners, but WWNF’s
preferred alternative remained largely
unprotective of Hells Canyon. Citizens sent in over
2,000 public comments, with most written comments
expressing preference for the Native Ecosystem
Alternative. The Nez Perce Tribe prepared and
submitted a science-based paper on the importance
of roadless ridges for elk, mule deer and
bighorn sheep. The W-WNF undertook further
analysis of Hells Canyon conditions in light of
On July 22, 2003, Supervisor Wood and her interdisciplinary team
released the Final EIS and her surprising Record of Decision. Roads
and off-road travel and livestock were all finally recognized as entities
to be circumscribed and limited, not simply defended, so that Hells
Canyon could be afforded a fighting chance to survive motorized
recreation, commodity extraction, and the invasive species they bring
in their wake.
This account doesn’t begin to describe the countless Tracking
Group drafts, meetings, and ongoing communication with the W-WNF
that were required over the years, but anyone who has organized for
change can imagine. Some might say that a ten-year process shows
that NEPA "doesn’t work." I believe this account shows precisely the
opposite: that NEPA does work. NEPA sets the stage through its
alternatives assessment process for the possibility of long-term,
fundamental changes. Such change doesn’t happen in a year, but it’s
what brings real wins for the earth.
Some Positive Provisions
of the New
Hells Canyon CMP|
• The HCNRA will be managed as a
"healthy ecosystem that is an integral
component of a larger biological
region... an area of high biological
diversity and endemism." Management
will "...ensure that maintenance and/or
restoration of ecological function and
sustainability of species, habitats, and
ecosystems ... contribute to its biological
• Over 245,000 acres of currently
vacant livestock allotments will be
closed to future livestock grazing and
instead managed for biodiversity and
native plant values, bringing the total
livestock-free area within the HCNRA to
around 365,000 acres.
• Road density will be reduced to 1.35
miles per square mile, resulting in the
closure of approximately one third of
existing HCNRA roads (about 200
miles). ATVs will be limited to "designated
open roads and trails," with no
cross-country use permitted.
• Forests will be allowed "to function in a
nearly natural manner" through the use
of natural fire, prescribed fire, and
vegetation projects aimed at restoring
"viable and healthy ecosystems."
Wildfire will "resume a more natural
role" and is recognized as an essential
part of the health of Hells Canyon.
• The CMP emphasizes "maintenance of
the rustic and primitive character of the
HCNRA," and "favors primitive and
semi-primitive experiences over roaded
natural and rural experiences."
• Prevention is recognized as a critical
part of invasive species (weed) management,
including "closure or restrictions
on use where appropriate."
Mary O’Brien (Ph.D., Botany), is a member of Wildlands CPR’s Board
of Directors. She is currently working with a Utah coalition to write a
Sustainable Multiple Use Alternative for the upcoming Fishlake, Dixie,
and Manti-LaSal Forest Plans.
Article first published in The Road RIPorter, the quarterly newsletter of Wildlands CPR, volume 8 #4, winter solstice 2003 (link provided below)
1. Public Law 94-199, December
2. Section 7, HCNRA Act.
3. Section 1502.14 of NEPA
Regulations, 40 Code of
Federal Regulations Parts
1500-1508 (1992). If you’ve
never read the crystal-clear,
regulations, do so. And
defend them, because
they’re under attack by the