Four Lessons Learned From Implementing Forest Service’s Lauded eMNEPA Program

USFS Program Selected by Presidents Council on Environmental Quality as a Pilot Program to Help Modernize and Reinvigorate NEPA The President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced August 31st that the Electronic Management of NEPA (eMNEPA) program at the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has been selected for the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) Pilot Program, an initiative launched in March of this year to identify and deploy innovative approaches to increase the efficiency of Federal environmental reviews.

I was proud to work with the Phase One team that developed the iterative, field-driven approach that was critical to eMNEPA’s success. We worked with over two thousand NEPA personnel to design a suite of tools that has resulted in significant benefits to the agency and improved transparency to the public.  Reducing the administrative burden on field personnel and encouraging meaningful collaboration with the public has been our primary mission since establishing the eMNEPA architecture blueprint in 2004.

Improve Mission Support And Save Money

Our innovative eMNEPA approach promotes faster and more effective Federal decisions on projects that create jobs, grow our economy, and protect the health and environment of our communities.  According to the CEQ, broader deployment of these tools across the Federal Government “has significant potential to reduce the cost and time involved in preparing, publishing, and tracking progress in NEPA reviews and documentation.”

The Forest Service’s eMNEPA toolset streamlines the activities around project tracking and reporting, distributing environmental information to the web, and collection of and response to public comment. This toolset has allowed the agency to save time and money in their NEPA analysis process and allow natural resource professionals to focus less on administrative tasks and more on environmental analyses.

It’s our hope that this push by the CEQ and the President will encourage other agencies to adopt similar approaches to improve NEPA project management, save time and money during the NEPA review process, and increase collaboration and openness with the public around the NEPA process.

Lessons Learned

With this, we’d like to offer some lessons-learned about implementing multi-purpose tools for NEPA:

1. Tools must serve a purpose

Tracking projects for their own sake is probably good for Federal record keeping, but likely little else. NEPA project tracking is best done if it serves multiple purposes. For the Forest Service, tracking NEPA projects informs the public, informs NEPA decisions, reduces data calls, standardizes the look and feel of project information for the public, and can help inform and expedite future decision making (amongst other things). Tracking for the sake of tracking is burdensome and unwanted.

2. Knowing the NEPA Practitioner is Key

New tools have to meet an immediate need of the users to ensure adoption and adoption is key to having accurate tracking. Discovering and analyzing what the users need to make life easier for them through interviews and validation of assumptions and solutions will help meet this goal.

3. Scalability is Necessary

One-size does not fit all in NEPA. Different  types of analysis require different data points to be tracked. Different project purposes may have more or less public interest. The NEPA practitioner should have the toolbox at their disposal, but should be allowed to select what tools to utilize for any given project

4. Have a Grand Vision, But Start Small

Incremental development of eMNEPA enabled agency leadership to make smart investments, while having high adoption, and increasing engagement with the public all along the way. Project tracking led to reporting of current projects; reporting led to increased transparency; transparency led to demand for documentation; tracking documents allowed standardization of project and document information on the web; training the public on where to find information enabled solicitation of public comments from a central location; etc. Project tracking was just the foundation for integrated NEPA tracking, reporting and collaboration; incrementalism will ensure that the agency is not overwhelmed while demonstrating continuous improvement to the public.

With proper implementation and planning, the administration’s push to improve NEPA and to streamline the environmental analysis process can hopefully promote faster and more effective Federal decisions on projects that create jobs, grow our economy, and protect the health and environment of our communities.

eMNEPA as a Model

The President’s recent memorandum, “Speeding Infrastructure Development through More Efficient and Effective Permitting and Environmental Review”, mandates CEQ to work with the Federal Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer to deploy technology to engage the public, improve transparency, and efficiently manage the efforts of permitting and environmental reviews.

Agencies involved in environmental review have 90 days to launch a pilot tool to facilitate easy public access to project information and public engagement around projects.  In addition, agencies have 120 days to reduce the time and cost associated with completing permitting and environmental reviews.  We feel Phase One’s approach to eMNEPA can be a model for how agencies can achieve the objectives of this presidential initiative.

As a CEQ NEPA Pilot Project, the Executive Office of the President has recognized that the eMNEPA program is a model that other agencies should strive toward for streamlining and tracking their NEPA project activities. The nod by the CEQ also shows that the eMNEPA tools have the potential to help simplify NEPA implementation practices, reduces the time and cost involved in preparing NEPA reviews, is an effective use of information technology, and improves the effectiveness of public engagement.