PORTLAND, Ore. - Environmentalists and the tribes don't always
see eye to eye, but when it comes to the selective way in
which the Bush administration enforces the National Environmental
Policy Act (NEPA) they're on the same page.
Under President Bush, the Interior Department allows industry
to skate through a streamlined NEPA process like it's Teflon-coated.
All the while, tribes trying to put together a land base find
a strict bar of unbendable standards firmly in place.
NEPA was designed to protect the nation's natural resources
by requiring environmental assessments (EA) of any federal
projects that have the potential to impact the land. Like
any law, though, interpretation is half the battle; and the
Bush administration has shown time and again that it favors
big business, not the side of groups like landless tribes
that have limited funds.
Wrote the environmental watchdog group BushGreenwatch: ''Landless
tribes must pay for their own environmental assessments which
contributes to a process called 'slow-rolling.' This occurs
when the EA is not paid for by the government - thus decreasing
the urgency of the project, and lengthening the review process.''
Indeed, an attorney who specializes in Indian law and spoke
to BushGreenwatch on condition of anonymity, said ''because
the Bush administration is hostile to the idea of Native Americans
gaining more land, they have been hiding behind the NEPA process.''
An EA is costly enough, but under the Bush administration
after a year or so a tribe is told they need to undertake
another step and complete an environmental impact statement
(EIS). This lengthy process can cost tribes up to $800,000,
according to John Dosset, general counsel of the National
Congress of American Indians.
''Completing an EIS can be very difficult for a tribe. It
increases the cost and demands a list of alternatives that
just aren't feasible,'' Dosset said. ''Basically the EIS asks
tribes to consider an alternative to living on a reservation
- and NEPA is not meant to do that.''
Dosset's point is well taken. NEPA was designed for projects
like timber harvesting, mining and building highway overpasses.
The idea was for those involved to consider various alternatives
to their project so that should the first option be too excessive,
a less environmentally destructive route could be taken. Tribes
trying to piece a homeland back together hardly come under
Conversely, Douglas Kendall, environmental attorney and author
of ''Redefining Federalism,'' noted that the Bush administration
gives the gas industry a wink and a nod. ''In the context
of developing coal bed methane, industry has been very aggressive
in using old, irrelevant NEPA studies to get around the full
NEPA process of natural gas extraction. It is very disturbing
that the Interior Department appears to be selectively using
NEPA to frustrate landless tribes and at the same time accommodate
efforts to extract resources.''
According to BushGreenwatch, during its first two years the
Bush administration presented arguments focused on weakening
NEPA in 94 of 172 cases the Interior Department reviewed.
During the same period, wrote BushGreenwatch: ''Rep. Richard
Pombo (R-Calif.), chair of the House committee studying the
NEPA process, has repeatedly criticized NEPA as an overly
burdensome process for industry.''
Clearly there's a flap inside the Beltway over environmental
policy. That the tribes have been shunted to the periphery
is not surprising. What's unfortunate is that those that are
weakest bear the brunt of the double standard. ''Landless
tribes'': even the phrase has a hollow ring.
That these struggling nations are caught in a NEPA crossfire
of technicalities seems somehow beneath the dignity of a great
nation that for a time, a least, was interested in resolving
tragedies that emerged from a checkered history. The 1960s
and 1970s, though, are long passed and the new millennium
has brought a conservative swing to the political climate.
Now the question is whether the religious right can find
a place in its heart - not to mention its agenda - for all
Americans. Allow the laws of the land to function as intended
across a wide spectrum of the population. It's quite clear
the jury's still out, and that the landless tribes are still