MAKING WAVES, August 2003 issue: Table of Contents     
bulldozer on the beach
This is the third installment of a five part series of articles by Chad Nelsen, Surfrider Foundation’s Environmental Director, spotlighting a number of critical federal laws which serve to protect our coastal environments and provide a framework for local activism, as well as any threats to the effectiveness of these laws ­ Ed.

“Creation and maintenance of conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony…”

This may sound more like a Surfrider Foundation manifesto than the opening line of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), but that is indeed what it is. Signed into law over 32 years ago by Richard Nixon, NEPA has been called the Magna Carta of environmental laws. NEPA is the federal law that requires all projects that have any federal involvement to study all the environmental impacts that a project might have and to develop an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Fortunately, for Surfrider Foundation activists, almost every project that has a potential impact to the coast is tied to the federal government one way or another and therefore requires environmental assessment under NEPA. The real value of NEPA is that it requires by law that the public be involved in the process. Thanks to NEPA we all get the opportunity see that available information and also to comment on the project impacts and alternatives.

What is NEPA?

The purpose of the law is to force agencies that are responsible for projects to make better informed decisions when asked to improve a project and to ensure that decision-making occurs in such a way that public input is included in the process. Here’s how is works:

On virtually every project an Environmental Assessment (EA) will be performed. The main purpose of an Environmental Assessment is to determine whether an EIS needs to be done. All EA’s require public notification and input. If, as a result of the EA, the agency responsible for the project finds that there is no “significant” environmental impact, the agency issues a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). If “significant” impact is expected then an EIS is performed.

A typical EIS includes the following stages: A scoping stage that broadly outlines the project needs, actions and impacts and provides public notice of the intent to prepare an EIS. Scoping is an attempt to create an early and open process for determining the scope of issues in the environmental review process.

Following the scoping period, a draft EIS is generated. The draft EIS has an open comment period. It is required by law that the final EIS includes all comments made in the draft EIS, and that it responds to those comments. EIS must include information on potential environmental impacts, a range of potential alternatives for the project and also information on cumulative impacts from other projects. At the end of the process the responsible agency certifies the EIS with a “preferred alternative” for the project.

One obvious question is how do I find out about these projects and get involved at the start? Many times our activists are aware of this process because they have been involved in the issue for years. In other cases, the best way to keep abreast of a project requiring an EIS is through the Federal Register. This can be found on the web at:

Unfortunately, the Federal Register doesn’t make it easy to track projects in your area. Instead, we often must rely on our Surfrider activist “watchdogs” and other community activists to alert us on projects.

Although NEPA has been a tremendous tool to effect change and involve the public, it has many shortcomings. For example, the law doesn’t require agencies to choose the least damaging alternative it identifies along the way. It only requires them to take a careful look at a range of alternatives, including the “no action” alternative. It assumes that the likely outcome will best serve the public interest. This clearly isn’t always the case. Nevertheless, NEPA is a valuable tool in the coastal activists tool box and a law that deserves support.

NEPA in Action, the Surfer’s Point example

One of the best and recent examples of Surfrider Foundation activists putting NEPA to work in their favor is that of Ventura Chapter activist Paul Jenkin’s efforts at Surfer’s Point. Paul has been involved in the coastal erosion issues at Surfer’s Point for almost ten years. In an effort to respond to coastal erosion at the point that is threatening a bike path, a road and a parking lot, the City developed an EIR (the California equivalent of an EIS) to look at alternatives for erosion response. Thanks to Paul’s incredible diligence and hard work, he and the Ventura Chapter were able to define and shape the preferred alternative of the project such that a long term, sustainably managed retreat approach will be taken. Thanks to NEPA and intensive public involvement it appears that the erosion response at Surfer’s Point is heading in the right direction. For more about this project visit

Threats to NEPA

Unfortunately, like so many of our environmental laws these days, the current administration is working to weaken NEPA. After remaining unchanged for over 30 years, this administration has set up the NEPA Task Force aimed at “streamlining” that law. While being applauded by industry, this effort has been met by notable skepticism within the environmental community. A recent example of efforts to undermine NEPA was the administration’s attempt to exclude the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from NEPA review. The EEZ is the area of ocean between 3 and 200 miles offshore (the 3 miles immediately offshore belonging to the states). This would have exempted activities such as oil drilling, pipeline laying, waste dumping, Navy sonar device testing and commercial fish-farming from environmental review, and excluded the public from the process. Fortunately, this effort was defeated in the courts.

What you can do

As activists who are concerned about the coastal and ocean environment, we must stand up for NEPA and demand that the public be included in decisions that affect the environment. To learn more about NEPA, Surfrider Foundation and how our Chapters are keeping the public involved, visit our website at:

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Surfrider Foundation's MAKING WAVES, August 2003

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