Posts tagged ‘NEPA’

Cutting the Resources Without Cutting the Work

When I was at consultant McKinsey & Co, one of their philosophies in doing cost reduction studies was that you don't cut staffing without first cutting back the work.  Identify the activities that don't need to be done or can be streamlined, change the processes to match, and then cut staffing.

This, of course, is not the way it usually happens, even in good companies.  Most companies just whack staff counts by some percentage, perhaps across the board and perhaps weighted by intuitions as to where the company is fat.  In a good company with good managers and good incentives, the organization can generally be trusted to cut back on the least useful activities in response to the staff cuts.  But in bad organizations with poor incentives, one has no idea if high value or low value activities are being cut.  And in the government, you can almost be assured that when staff and budgets are cut, low-value activities are preserved while high-value core mission activities are cut.  In my world of public parks, staff cuts almost always lead to preservation of bloated headquarters staff while maintenance budgets and staff actually service visitors in parks is slashed.

And then there is this on new rules being imposed by the Trump Administration on NEPA.   If you want to know why infrastructure projects almost never get started and public lands are seldom improved, NEPA is a big part of the reason.  It is something that is desperately in need of reform.  But the Trump Administration appears to be making the same mistake I discussed above, cutting resources without cutting the work required:

Yesterday Greenwire ran a story about how one of the new political appointees at the Department of the Interior issued a memo requiring that National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) studies (those Environmental Impact Statements you hear so much about) be completed in one year, and be no more than 150 pages long.

If there were ever any doubts that the Trump Administration minions have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, this should put them to rest. Ostensibly intended to “streamline the regulatory process”, blah, blah, blah, its effect will be precisely the opposite; this one memo will delay and stop more projects than anything the environmental community has ever come up with. The activists may be livid, but I promise you that their lawyers are going, “Yee-ha!” I certainly would be if I were still doing NEPA cases.

The NEPA and the hundreds of court decisions interpreting it are painfully clear on how detailed an EIS has to be. Putting artificial and arbitrary limits on an EIS will make it so much easier to show how the EIS does not “take a hard look at the environmental consequences,” contain “a detailed statement of any adverse environmental effects” of a proposed project, etc.

Examples of Why Government Infrastructure Projects Are So Hard To Get Done

As most of you know, my company operates public recreation facilities for a variety of public agencies under concession contracts.  These contracts are mostly similar to each other in their structure, but one key difference among them is the contract length -- we have both short-term contracts of say 5 years and long-term contracts up to 30 years.  When we have longer-term contracts, we are expected to do all the maintenance, even capital maintenance such as repaving roads and replacing roofs (more on that approach here).  The US Forest Service tends to prefer much shorter contracts where they retain responsibility for capital maintenance -- this tends to work out as we pay a higher concession fee on these (since we have fewer expenses) and the Forest Service has a process to use the concession fee to perform capital maintenance.  In fact, generally the FS asks us to do the maintenance because it is way easier for us to get it started (avoids the government contracting processes) and then we get credit for our costs against the fees we owe.

Anyway, I have a fair amount of experience with performing small to medium-sized infrastructure projects on public lands.  Here are a few examples, starting from the sublime and proceeding to the ridiculous, of projects we have not been able to proceed with and why.  In all these examples, my company was going to fund the project so availability of funds was not an issue.

  • In TN, we had already begun an expansion to add more campsites to an existing campground, a project already approved by our government landlord.  A disgruntled ex-employee, on his way out, claimed we had disturbed a rock pile and he thought the rock pile was some sort of Native American artifact.  Despite the fact there was no evidence for this, and that the construction was no where near the rock pile, construction was halted and my contractor had to go home while an investigation was begun.  As we speak, scores of acres surrounding the campground have been put off-limits to development until the rock pile is thoroughly studied, but of course no funding currently exists to study the rock pile so it is not clear how long this will take.  I am proceeding internally on the assumption that we will never be given permission and am cutting losses on materials bought for the project.
  • In AZ, we operated a snow play area in what was essentially a gravel pit.  The slopes we used were what was left from years of mining gravel, and essentially the whole area had been disturbed.  We wanted to add a real bathroom to replace scores of portable toilets and to bring power to the area rather than use generators.  All the work would be performed on already disturbed land in the gravel pit.  We were told we could not proceed without a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) study to assess environmental impacts of the work, which could easily take years or longer if its results got tied up in the courts, as they often do.  Since the government had no money or manpower to do the NEPA study, it was pointless to even try to proceed.  This year, without the ability to construct necessary facilities for visitors, we exited the concession contract and the Forest Service has not be successful yet in finding anyone else to reopen it.
  • In CA, just this week, I was discussing two maintenance projects with the government in a series of campgrounds we run near the Owens Valley.  In one, we wanted to dig up a water line that runs under a dirt road to repair a leak.  In the second, we desperately needed to replace some leaky roofs on bathrooms.  Both projects are now delayed.  In the case of the water line, digging up the road was going to require an archaeological study - yes, any digging basically requires such a study, and there is no exception for utterly absurd situations like this.  We eventually decided to open the campground without water this year, to the detriment of campers.  In the other case, the replacement of roofs on some old 1950's campground pit toilet buildings (think bathrooms at a highway rest area but not as nice) have to first be evaluated to make sure they are not historic buildings that should be protected.  Since this is a safety issue, I used up my favors on this one to try to get it to proceed.  In my experience, once a building in a park or campground has been labelled historic, that is pretty much its death sentence.  It becomes impossible to do any work on them and they simply fall apart.  For example, years ago there were some really neat old travel cabins in Slide Rock State Park in AZ.  I tried to get permission to fix them up and reopen them, but was told they were historic and they had to wait for special permissions and procedures and materials.  Today, the cabins are basically kindling, having fallen apart completely.

Recognize that these are projects entirely without NIMBY, funding, permitting, licensing, or procurement issues.  But they still face barriers from government rules.