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Standing Up for This World

Democracy is under attack by government itself, and environmental law is the battleground

by Mary O'Brien

Published in the September/October 2004 issue of Orion magazine



Snake River, Hells Canyon
Snake River, Hells Canyon
Photograph by Ellen Morris Bishop

A CITY COUNCILOR in my town recently told me that her past four years in office have changed her focus. “I first ran for council because of environmental issues facing my ward,” she said. “Now, I realize my main work is to retain democracy.”

This same realization is dawning on many environmental and social activists and millions of reflective citizens in this country: defending and restoring democracy is critical to the success of all public endeavors. The ultimate source of our current crisis is that those at the center of power in any social system—religious, organizational, or governmental—tend to consolidate power and limit divergent approaches. A social system that codifies the right of any person to bring ideas to the table, however, requiring decision-makers to fully and publicly consider alternatives, has a built-in counterforce to centralization. It affirms innovation and provides a basis for hope. It becomes a democracy.

Just such an approach was written into our nation’s laws when Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on January 1, 1970. In its Declaration, NEPA says:

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.


Rights and Responsibilities. While the recognition carries with it no statutory clout, one section of NEPA does: the requirement that federal agencies prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” Such actions might include dredging a shipping channel, building a dam, permitting cattle to graze in a desert, or cleaning up a hazardous waste site.

NEPA requires that an environmental impact statement include “all reasonable alternatives to the proposed action.” A companion requirement, equally as important, is that consideration of such alternatives must take place in collaboration with the public, allowing citizens to embrace NEPA’s challenge. NEPA says, in effect, You have the power to help your government do its job.

Our current administration, though, is not fond of considering alternatives. It is not so much the personal philosophies of President Bush and his key advisors that are problematic; after all, many Americans earnestly adhere to similar religious, economic, and political views. What is troublesome is this administration’s political philosophy, which is moving toward the systematic elimination of processes by which different ideas may be brought to the table. From seeking to limit legal challenges to the detainment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, to instructing federal agencies to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act, to the crafting of our country’s national oil policy behind closed doors in sessions led by industry insiders, this administration has demonstrated an arrogant disdain of opposing points of view. As one might expect, NEPA, because of its commitment to the weighing of alternatives and public input, is in the crosshairs of the Bush White House.

I first encountered the democratic power of NEPA in the early 1980s, when I worked as a staff scientist for the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. Since the mid-1970s, the Forest Service in Oregon and Washington had been locking horns with residents and forest workers regarding aerial herbicide spraying of “unwanted vegetation” over blocs of clear-cut national forest. This was akin to weed spraying, but on a massive scale. All plants that Forest Service workers felt competed with commercially valuable, newly planted conifers were targets. Beginning in the early 1970s, the agency sprayed Agent Orange, the potent mixture of the herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, to kill such plants. This was after the U.S. Army had banned Agent Orange from use in Vietnam because it caused birth defects and miscarriages. A citizen movement in Oregon led to the emergency suspension of the dioxin-contaminated 2,4,5-T in 1979, but aerial spraying of the other half of Agent Orange, 2,4-D, continued unabated.

In 1984, in response to citizen lawsuits, the U.S. District Court of Oregon shut down all herbicide spraying by the Forest Service in Oregon and Washington until the agency candidly addressed the dangers. The agency decided to write an entirely new environmental impact statement for vegetation management. Under NEPA’s aegis, a coalition of tree planters, rural residents, scientists, and herbicide reform activists volunteered to work with the Forest Service to write an alternative that emphasized effective, nonchemical prevention and control of unwanted vegetation. The group reported some simple, effective alternatives. For instance, two-year-old trees could be planted in clearcuts, as opposed to the one-year-old seedlings the Forest Service favored, since they were more likely to survive. Similarly, shrubs could be manually cleared from the immediate vicinity of trees. The native, previously unwanted red alder tree didn’t have to be removed at all because it restores nitrogen to depleted soil, helping rather than competing with the conifers.

To most people’s surprise, in his 1988 final decision choosing among alternatives, Regional Forester James Torrence made a near about-face from his office’s earlier preference for herbicides and chose to implement most of the “least-herbicide” option. How had this reversal of Forest Service policy taken place? NEPA. Once the Forest Service opened its decision-making process to the public, its Pacific Northwest Regional Office staff heard compelling arguments for methods for managing vegetation that they had earlier dismissed. In fact, as Torrence’s decision showed, the least-herbicide option rose to the top and became the agency’s preference.

This experience was a turning point for me. I saw two sides of environmental and social reform: The “No” (to herbicide spraying, nuclear power, apartheid) and the “Yes” (to nonchemical alternatives, renewable energy, shared governance). “No” is necessary sometimes, but “Yes” is always important. “No” can be done as outside protest, but “Yes” requires presence at the planning table. Through one Forest Service herbicide decision-making process, I saw that our nation’s NEPA regulations are a model for access to planning tables and being given the opportunity to say “Yes.”

LAST FALL, A SIMILAR PLANNING PROCESS—for Hells Canyon National Recreation Area in northeastern Oregon and western Idaho—concluded after ten years of citizen involvement. Hells Canyon is an awe-inspiring landscape that straddles the Snake River. It drops eight thousand feet from the top of Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains down to the Oregon border on the bed of the river, then climbs five thousand feet back up to its western rim. Its hot, bunchgrass slopes, forested plateaus, side canyons, and five major watersheds are home to an abundance of rare and unique creatures. Bighorn sheep leap before cliffs bearing ancient pictographs of leaping bighorn sheep. Young Chinook salmon begin their journey to the Pacific Ocean here. Rare mariposa lilies and four-o’clocks unfurl lavish petals in the canyon’s heat. Pikas store grasses among alpine rocks, while fragile soil crusts hold steep midelevation slopes together and scratchy, netleaf hackberry trees root amid cacti at the canyon’s bottom. Native grasslands on the scale found in this canyon are now rare in our nation. They, and the species that depend upon them, are highly threatened by invasive species, roads, off-road vehicles, and grazing livestock.

In January 1994, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest supervisor announced his intention to write a new management plan for the 652,000-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. That same month, twelve of us who had particular, diverse loves for Hells Canyon gathered at a Denny’s restaurant in Baker City, Oregon, to begin the mundane process of democracy as it had been staked out by NEPA. We knew that the supervisor had a fondness for steep-slope livestock grazing, timber harvesting, new roads, and off-road vehicles. We knew that Hells Canyon had been subjected to grazing and logging for more than a hundred years; dams, road construction, and fire suppression for decades; and, most recently, off-road driving of increasing intensity. We knew that too many Hells Canyon native plants and animals were declining in number, and that the condition of most was not being tracked. We knew that Hells Canyon needed rest.

Our gathering included Bob Jackson, a forester who sees trees first as members of a forest, and only secondly as a wood cache. There was Louie Dick, Jr., part Nez Perce and part Umatilla, who believes that how we treat the Earth is how we treat ourselves; Ellen Bishop, a local geologist who had helped the world learn that Hells Canyon’s oldest rocks were born of undersea volcanoes; Scott Stouder, who hunted mule deer in Hells Canyon as a teenager and later logged old growth in Oregon’s Coast Range, eventually concluding that neither mule deer nor forests are infinite; Judy Johnson, a member of the National Audubon Society, who could recognize more Hells Canyon birds by their calls in an hour than I could find in a week; Craig Gehrke of The Wilderness Society, who leavened discouraging moments with humor; Roberta Bates of the Grand Ronde Resources Council, who regularly walked the Oregon side of Hells Canyon and figured that where lands are public she is responsible for them.

I was a botanist who, as a young East Los Angeles daughter of a minister and a skid row social worker, had fallen in love with grasslands through books, and with public lands via an annual two-week vacation in California’s Kings Canyon National Park. Representing Hells Canyon Preservation Council, I was facilitating this ad hoc group’s process, which eventually produced a “native ecosystem” management plan that we presented to the Forest Service in 1995.

The staff of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest initially ignored our alternative. But Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., agreed that our alternative was reasonable, differed significantly from that of the Wallowa-Whitman’s, and therefore, under NEPA, had to be considered. In the end, an astonishing proportion of our alternative was adopted by the Wallowa-Whitman, including significant limitations on livestock grazing and motorized recreation—the two largest current threats to Hells Canyon.

If the decision had been ours alone, we would have proposed more protection for Hells Canyon. Instead, we had included what we believed would be judged reasonable by the courts if we had to turn to them. We knew the Forest Service and a sizeable portion of the public would have to recognize our alternative as reasonable if we wanted land managers to adopt any of its provisions. In essence, we had to write the alternative not as outsiders, but as if we were a Forest Service staff determined to let Hells Canyon keep its native character within the confines of the agency’s starved budget, skeleton staff, and obligations to myriad laws, including those that require it to permit some livestock grazing, logging, roads, and motorized recreation. We had to write the alternative as if ordinary citizens are part of our government’s decision making. We had to write the alternative as members of a democracy.

IN THE GRAND SCHEME of things these are small, very place-specific cases. On a larger scale loom several broad revisions of national policy that impact all of us, allowing input and feedback from only a select few. With the ostensible goal of restoring natural fire regimes to fire-suppressed, overly dense forests and protecting communities near such forests, President Bush signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act in 2003. This legislation excuses the Forest Service from considering all reasonable alternatives when making plans to reduce catastrophic fire risk in the nation’s 192 million acres of national forest. Under the new law, land managers can now propose logging large, fire resistant trees in roadless areas without considering any alternatives for “restoration.”

New rules being drafted by the Forest Service would entirely eliminate consideration of alternatives and analysis of environmental impacts from national forest planning, and would eliminate the requirement that the Forest Service try to retain native species on any of our 177 national forests and grasslands. The new regulations are aimed at preventing citizens from standing up for their national forests and the species that live there. If implemented, the rules would impoverish Forest Service decision-making, the forests themselves, and the democratic process established by NEPA..

Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security has proposed preparing environmental impact statements for nuclear accident cleanup plans in secret, a perversion of the original impulse behind NEPA.

Democracy means government in which the people are the source of political authority. In other words, if we want a democracy, we have to be one. The only way we can be our government, however, is if we can effectively place our ideas, information, proposals, and protests into the pot that boils around large debates. Who will have healthcare and who will be poisoned? Who should go to jail and when should we go to war? Shall a corporation be treated as a person? Do wolves have the right to return to states from which they have been extirpated? Shall we grow prescription drugs in corn? Shall money be treated as free speech?

The crucial distinction between a democracy and a dictatorship is that the former embodies processes that allow the public to suggest and implement wise solutions to a nation’s problems. Authoritarian regimes don’t like alternatives, whether they arise in courts, legislatures, media, or art. Democracies, on the other hand, acknowledge the importance of alternatives, and ultimately thrive on them.

Americans depend on democratic processes in order to stand up effectively for the vulnerable and the voiceless. In turn, democracy depends on us to sing it into existence each day, as we seek to care for all that is public and wild.

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This article has been abridged for the web.

MARY O'BRIEN has worked as a staff scientist for environmental advocacy organizations throughout the West for twenty-two years. She is the author of Making Better Environmental Decisions: An Alternative to Risk Assessment (MIT Press, 2000), and is currently writing a book on Hells Canyon.

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