For thirty-five years EPIC has played a vital and necessary role in the protection of the natural environment of northwestern California. The organization’s mission is to protect and restore ancient forests, watersheds, coastal estuaries, and native species in Northern California. EPIC uses an integrated, science-based approach, combining public education, citizen advocacy, and strategic litigation. An essential part this strategy is how EPIC champions and promotes access to environmental democracy.
What is environmental democracy? Environmental democracy is about government being transparent, accountable, and involving people in decisions that affect the quality of their lives and their environment. In many parts of the world, citizens are still fighting for these basic freedoms and rights that many in the United States take for granted. Indeed, it is likely that a large sector of the American public does not even think about access to environmental democracy.
In the United States, governmental agencies, like the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), were created and charged with the responsibility to uphold and enforce environmental laws to ensure that citizens have access to clean water, clean air and to a healthy environment from which to live and thrive. Other federal and state agencies like the US Fish and Wildlife Services, Bureau of Land Management, National and State Parks, similarly were put in place to oversee and regulate these commonly held resources for the people of the United States of America.
Unfortunately, however, the very agencies and regulators that were put in place to safe-guard these values, time and time again, simply fail to get the job done. Whether it is through complacency, corruption, or through a flawed system filled with bureaucrats and red-tape, agencies often lack the resources or ability to enforce the very laws they were created to uphold. Big industry and high-spending polluters with their endless resources, get their way despite overwhelming scientific data and public support surrounding the need for environmental regulation and protection. That is where citizen watchdogs and public interest organizations like EPIC play a critically needed role, to ensure that this nation’s environmental laws are upheld and not undermined. Whether in the courtrooms, in the media, online with email or website updates, EPIC’s network of information helps to mobilize the public will, which in turn provides the necessary political pressure to help get the job done! The job of maintaining and enforcing environmental laws and protecting the natural world by promoting environmental democracy… the voice of the people, by people, for the people, for the environment.
In this vein, EPIC continues to be committed to promoting broad public participation in decision-making. Back room deals and secrecy have never been compatible with an open society. By demanding that government agencies and private corporations operate out in the open, we are working towards ensuring that a cornerstone of our democracy is vibrant and functioning. EPIC has exposed numerous proposed actions where government officials have attempted to short circuit the public’s role in the decision making process. One example of this limitation of public participation is the use of Categorical Exclusions or Exemptions from environmental analysis. Rather than receive public scrutiny over a proposal, the exemption process truly results in secretive and closed-door judgment calls that are poorly researched and counter to the public interest (see below).
Even when an open public process is ongoing, it is absolutely critical that the best available science and most recent research are presented to the public for consideration. By doing so, EPIC provides the public with the information, the public can then provide the voice and public will identifies and offers solutions to environmental problems by gathering and advancing the best available science to agencies, private parties and the general public.
Little Cronan Timber Sale
The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to log an old-growth forest stand using a “Categorical Exclusion” without an environmental analysis. The project would log nesting habitat for the northern spotted owl, build landings, and a road over a trail leading to the Marble Mountain Wilderness within a watershed that is critical for salmon recovery.
EPIC was successful at halting this project for over a year, based on Forest Service violations of the Endangered Species Act; however the Forest Service is again circulating this timber sale that ignores the best available science, public comments, the law, and undermines the public’s trust in its actions.
Since 2007, EPIC and our allies have held Caltrans accountable to the law. Initially Caltrans was only going to do the bare minimum of environmental analysis for the Richardson Grove ‘Improvement’ Project—a Categorical Exemption, which is reserved for projects that do not have a significant impact on the environment. Had EPIC not intervened on behalf of the Grove, it is likely the project would likely have already been built, with very little environmental analysis, and zero public input.