NPS Director's Order 12: Conservation Planning, Environmental Impact Analysis and Decision Making
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White Sands National Monument, NM2.10 Overview of the NEPA Process — Determining the Appropriate NEPA Pathway

A. Documentation

A NEPA review includes documentation of the analysis, which then becomes available to the public. The degree of public input and the detail included in the documentation varies depending on the severity, in context, of the environmental impacts of the proposal and alternatives.

B. Five options

Five options to document a NEPA analysis are available:

  1. Memo to file — Prepare a memo to file when the proposal has already been analyzed in site-specific detail in a previous NEPA document, no different impacts or changes to the project are expected, and environmental conditions have not changed. A notation to this effect should be prepared and placed in the project files.

  2. CEs for which no formal documentation is necessary — This option is applicable when the action is described using one of the categories in section 3.3 and no exceptions (section 3.5) exist. If appropriate, and if a project file exists, a memo to file may be placed in the project file.

  3. CEs for which a record is neededPrepare these records when the action is described using one of the categories in section 3.4 and no exceptions (section 3.5) exist. Complete the ESF (appendix 1) and the CEF (appendix 2) and include them with the project file.

  4. EIS — Prepare an EIS when the potential for significant impact to the human environment exists (see section 4.2), as indicated by an EA, an ESF, or other scoping, or because the proposed action or alternative is described in section 4.4.

  5. EA — Prepare when:
    (a) the significance of impacts is unknown (e.g., to determine whether an EIS is required).
    (b) the proposed action is not described on either of the CE lists (sections 3.3 and 3.4) or the list of actions that normally require an EIS (section 4.4).
    (c) the proposed action would take several CE categories to describe fully, would involve one or more of the exceptions described in section 3.5, or would involve unresolved conflicts concerning the use of resources.

Each of these options has specific content and public involvement requirements. For options 3, 4, and 5, you should complete the clear definition of objectives, an initial range of alternatives and actions including connected and cumulative actions, internal interdisciplinary scoping (see section 2.6), and an ESF (see section 2.6 (B) (1)) before you determine the appropriate NEPA pathway. For options 1 or 2, no ESF is required, although you should consult the list of exceptions to categorical exclusions (see section 3.5) to see whether any apply.

C. The choice of pathways

  1. If you believe option 1 above applies, the IDT should re-read the NEPA document that it believes already describes and analyzes the impacts of the action. If it does so in site-specific detail, and the analysis is up-to-date (see section 2.6 (C)), no further documentation is required, although for the administrative record, you must write a memo to file as described above. (Also note that this memo should be approved by the Superintendent or his/her designee after consultation with the regional environmental coordinator.)

  2. If option 1 does not apply, but you believe option 2 does, check the list of actions in section 3.3. If it is described on this list (and no exceptions in section 3.5 apply), you may take action without further paperwork.

  3. If the action is not on the list in section 3.3, or if it is described and analyzed in a previous NEPA document, you should complete internal scoping, complete the ESF form, and check the list of actions in section 3.4.

  4. If the action is described in section 3.4, and no exceptional circumstances (section 3.5) exist, the CE is likely the appropriate pathway. Section 3.2 of this handbook describes the categorical exclusion process in more detail.

  5. If the action is not described on the CE list, check the list of actions that normally require the preparation of an EIS (section 4.4). If it is on the list, or the potential for significant impacts exists as indicated by the ESF, you must write an EIS. Chapter 4.0 of this handbook details the process to follow in preparing an EIS.

  6. You should prepare an EA if the action is not described on any list, or if one of the following applies:
  • one or more of the categories on the ESF apply or are checked “data needed” or “yes,” but you do not know if any will result in significant impacts;
  • several categories in section 3.4 are required to completely describe the project;
  • the action is described in section 3.3 or 3.4, but one or more of the exceptions in section 3.5 apply;
  • unresolved conflicts concerning the use of resources exist; or the significance of impacts is unknown.

If the EA indicates there may be significant impacts, you must prepare an EIS, unless the unique and limited circumstances described in section 5.4 (F)(3) apply and a proposal can be modified with mitigation measures to lessen the severity of impact, sometimes referred to as a “mitigated EA.” The use of the terms “significant” and “significance” over the years has become quite contentious in NEPA documents. It is highly recommended that these terms be avoided in EAs and EISs, since these terms apply primarily to the determination of the most appropriate NEPA pathway.

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