Pretend this Environmental Impact Statement is a national park

This post appeared on The Last Word on Nothing on Jan. 22, 2016


Behold, the majestic white cliffs. They form ghostly canyons that stretch into forbidding fog. Swallows build mud-daub nests on their walls. Falcons dive from their precipices to eat the swallows. Some say people have vanished here without trace, back during the first days of exploration.

Limestone? you ask. The incised and sculpted leavings of an ancient seabed?

No. Paper. Thousands of pages of stacked paper. But really, we’re not concerned about those cliffs. We must look beyond them: The landscape we’re here to “see” is contained therein, and it looks nothing like this one.

Welcome to the sprawling Boardman to Hemingway Draft Environmental Impact Statement, released in April 2015, which draws its name from a proposed electrical transmission line that would stand 200 feet tall and stretch 305 miles across rural western Idaho and eastern Oregon. For those of you who don’t follow U.S. environmental policy wonkery, our tour today begins with some history. In 1970, that paragon of conservation largesse Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Essentially, the law requires the federal government to study the environmental and socioeconomic effects of projects and plans proposed for the hundreds of millions of acres of land it manages. Then, it must disclose those effects to the public for feedback before choosing a course of action.

That’s a lot of land. And because agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management must allow multiple uses on ground they oversee, from wildlife habitat to recreation to some industrial development, there are a wide variety of projects that require study. The result of all this are white warrens like the one where we now stand. Countless intimidatingly-fat reports and studies are stored on government hard drives and shelves; in some offices, they are so heavy that the floor beneath must be reinforced with concrete, and then reinforced again as the stacks grow.

They are, in a way, a vast and dispersed collection of meta-landscapes, albeit mind-numbingly bureaucratic and boring ones. As an environmental journalist, I honestly kind of hate them, as do, I imagine, many others who got into land management or advocacy because they like actually being outside. Traversing their virtual terrain is like taking a two-week backpacking trip through a densely overgrown wilderness of agency jargon and acronyms, with no machete to clear the path and only a table of contents to serve as map. But I’d argue that’s an important journey with conservation implications on par with the more celebrated and familiar trope of national parks, provided enough people take it. After all, those hundreds of millions of acres in question don’t actually belong to the federal government; its land agencies manage them on behalf of the American people. And if you’re willing to dive into that jungle, you can help ensure those agencies are more responsible stewards of your resources.

Oops, there’s some of that jargon now. What do I mean by resources? Let’s press deeper into the Boardman to Hemingway study, where I’ve been spending a lot of squinting hours recently, so that I can show you. Imagine page 110 of Chapter 3 Part 1 is an overlook. From there, we can see the broad, rolling sweep of mostly empty ridges, dry valleys and plains that portions of the new powerline would cut across. On private land adjacent to the Snake and other rivers, much of this ground has been converted to farms. But on federal land in the project area, the original gnarled and biologically diverse sagebrush ecosystem still spreads over vast swaths, blending from the foreground to the horizon in a silver-green stipple. An extraordinarily sensitive, increasingly rare bird called the greater sage grouse ranges here, on 67 pages of this chapter. The ground-dwelling species instinctively avoids tall structures like powerlines because they provide perches for hungry hawks and eagles, meaning that where the federal agencies decide to put the line will make a big difference in how much of the bird’s habitat the project destroys. For reasons like this, NEPA requires the feds analyze a suite of possible routes – sort of a choose-your-own-adventure approach – including what would happen if the project wasn’t built at all.

Those “resources” aren’t just environmental. As we traverse into Chapter 3 part 2, you’ll see that, along all analyzed routes, the line would parallel and occasionally cross the designated Oregon National Historic Trail. If we dally for awhile on page 128, we’ll even catch a glimpse of a few intermittent stretches of mostly-undisturbed swale-like ruts through the sage left by the tens of thousands of covered wagons that passed this way more than 150 years ago. Before that, fur traders and explorers used these trails, and all the while, and for thousands of years before, Native Americans pursued wild food and trade on the same paths. Today, the landscape visible from these spots looks much the same as it did then. But in the document, the powerline would be visible from more than 80 percent of the Oregon Trail along its route, and cross it 11 times.

Did you know those trails were there on that ground, in more than a vague, history-lesson kind of way? Until I actually began exploring these documents, I didn’t, even though I had driven past them on the interstate dozens of times. But others who watch such things had bombarded the Bureau of Land Management with comments by last summer. And now, the most recent set of preliminary maps suggests the agency is shifting the line’s probable location farther away from those very ruts we checked out on page 128. So, how do you want your federal lands managed on your behalf? Fancy a little canyoneering amidst the sheaves? As for me, I’m disappearing back into those fogged and ghostly depths for the time being. I’ve got some stories to write.

Original artwork by the author.