July 31, 2020

Wild Virginia Sues Trump Administration: Public’s Rights Are Under Attack

By David Sligh and Catie Leigh

Through the case Wild Virginia et al. v. Council on Environmental Quality et al., filed in a Virginia federal court on July 29, 2020, we are standing up for your right to help decide the future of the nation’s environment. We reject the Trump administration’s efforts to do business behind closed doors and shut us out of our government’s operations.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

When prompted to reflect upon America’s natural treasures, what do you see? Perhaps mental screenshots of breathtaking National Parks, like the Shenandoah or Yellowstone? Or maybe you envision exquisite and exciting species, like the giant hellbender salamander or the massive, stunning redwoods of coastal California? Maybe to you the outdoors is synonymous with community; after all, America’s outdoor-loving citizens inhabit every corner of the country, from coast to coast.

Regardless of what you imagine, it is likely that the natural places you envision, those that make Virginia’s environments so uniquely memorable, survive and thrive partly because of government regulations and management efforts. Presidents of the past, like Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Jimmy Carter, all left behind legacies of protected public lands, green spaces for public enjoyment, that are managed on our behalf and with our participation in federal agency operations. These individuals, and countless more passionate wildlife defenders, are the reason that we have National Parks today! Even more broadly, the revolutionary environmental protection laws born in the early 1970s, including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act have helped restore rivers, made cities safer, and prevented extinctions of vital plants and animals, among many other achievements.

THE THREAT

Unfortunately, there is a growing dark shadow over the protective regulatory systems we’ve relied on for decades; an effort to dismantle safeguards for the quality of the outdoor spaces we as Americans hold dear. There is also an assault on our ability as citizens to have an active and effective role in the governance of these valuable and life-sustaining resources.

The most recent attack by the Trump administration seeks to weaken a keystone law in the system of protections we’ve built and relied on for decades, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This is the law that requires agencies to prepare Environmental Impact Statements or Assessments for projects under federal consideration.

By establishing transparent procedures requiring federal decisionmakers to weigh proposed federal projects against environmental impacts, NEPA is meant to ensure that a thoughtful and informed government will make careful decisions; after all, once destroyed, it is essentially impossible to restore the delicate and complex ecosystems that sustain the natural wonders of our country. And, reflecting the fact that ours is to be a government for the people, and by the people, NEPA aims to ensure governmental accountability by informing the public about proposals and their environmental impacts, presenting viable alternatives, and seeking information and opinions from the public before decisions are made. 

In conflict with Congress’ intentions when it created NEPA, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recently finalized changes to the rules that make NEPA work in the real world. The CEQ ignored procedural steps it was required to take in making this change and it exceeded its authority, substituting its constricted vision of public participation for that our elected representatives designed.

WILD VIRGINIA’S ROLE

Wild Virginia campaigns focus heavily on the protections of national forests in Virginia, through involvement in NEPA reviews about projects and long-range planning for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. We have been a leader in informing the public about issues surrounding National Forests in Virginia for two decades. We submit information from our own investigations along with detailed scientific and legal analyses. Just as importantly, we recruit and train citizens to participate in the processes, to represent their views and interests as the law provides.

During just the past five years, the Wild Virginia has participated in NEPA reviews for at least fifteen separate Forest Service projects. We have been and continue to fight pipeline encroachment on these public lands. One of the nails in the recently cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s coffin was the lawsuit against the Forest Service over its failure to do its job correctly under NEPA. Along with other allied groups, Wild Virginia won on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and on a similar case against the Mountain Valley Pipeline. For both, a federal appeals court sided with us, finding that the agency had abandoned it duty to protect us and our public lands.

This history of action by Wild Virginia positioned us to challenge the CEQ’s attempt to weaken NEPA enforcement. We have illustrated how important the public is in the scheme of regulation of the environment; and that sometimes approved government proposals can and should be blocked or altered to truly reflect the public interest.

YOUR ROLE

If you have followed Wild Virginia’s work, you will know that we provide educational guides and assistance in making comments during NEPA reviews. We encourage you to continue to raise your voice in these important, though for many confusing and daunting, processes and we will continue to let you know when and how to participate.

If you are not a member of Wild Virginia or have not renewed your membership, please join or renew. We can’t do this work without your support and participation.