Make no mistake: managing and responding to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires multifaceted technical analyses and detailed reporting. So much so that it may seem like a massive bureaucratic process that is handled by agencies and consultants behind closed doors.

What many folks may not realize is the importance of public engagement during the process.

The public (that’s you) plays a huge role in the NEPA process. Citizens are often uniquely situated to possess relevant and helpful information about the potential environmental, social, and economic effects that proposed federal actions might have on people, places, and resources. As such, public participation in the information-gathering process can be critical.

Have you ever seen a “request for public comment” and wondered how to actually go about making a comment? Or are you embarking on a project that will trigger a NEPA review and are not sure how or when to involve the public in the process?

Enter the Center on Environmental Quality’s (CEQ’s) “A Citizen’s Guide to NEPA: Having Your Voice Heard.” This helpful resource was revised in January of this year to reflect updates to NEPA that took effect in September of 2020. The guide takes us through the history of NEPA, actions that it applies to, and procedural requirements, as well as when and how you can get involved in the process and what to do if your voice isn’t being heard.

Key Takeaways

Stay Informed

  • Proactively inform agencies of interest to you that you would like to be notified of any potential actions that might have environmental effects.
  • Visit agency websites. CEQ requires that environmental documents and relevant notices be kept updated.

Be Prepared

  • Know upfront that active involvement in the NEPA process will require dedicated time and resources. Environmental impact analyses can be technical and lengthy!
  • You can participate in the process as an individual, as a group or organization, or by working through your state, tribal, or local government.
  • Pro tip! Check with local experts, such as biologists or university economists, who might be able to help with your review of the NEPA analyses and documents.

Comment Effectively

  • Comments should be clear, concise, and relevant to the analysis of the proposed action and should be submitted during the public comment periods. And, of course, a polite and respectful tone is always appreciated.
  • Comments that are solutions-oriented, provide specific examples, and contribute to developing alternatives will be more effective than those that simply convey opposition to the proposed project.
Public Outreach at ESA

Since 1969, ESA has been assisting federal clients with meeting NEPA requirements based on science, policy, and planning. We know that providing all stakeholders with a voice in the future of their community is fundamental to creating plans that are enduring; thus, we integrate public involvement and agency coordination into our approach from the onset.

Engaging the public is not a cookie-cutter process that fits all communities or projects. Rather, it takes a nuanced examination of the NEPA review process to identify the best times for public review and comment along the way, through workshops, charrettes, tours, and more.

These days especially, when large, in-person gatherings are unsafe as we continue to navigate the pandemic, we have found great success in facilitating virtual public meetings to provide equal and equitable access to information for all community members and stakeholders. We’re counting this as one of the silver linings of the past year and will certainly continue using this technology moving forward to work to engage more and more people.

Citizens can also submit public comments and review them through our web-based comment management system, making this process accessible and efficient for all involved.

For more information on utilizing NEPA as a citizen engagement tool, please reach out to Meredith Parkin.