New Handbook Available on Federal Historic and Environmental Review

Posted on: May 10th, 2013 by Special Contributor

By: Milford Wayne Donaldson

Federal agencies have a goal of improving regulatory processes and making them more efficient while maintaining or enhancing their effectiveness. With these goals in mind, in March 2013, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) published a handbook on coordinating the required review processes under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

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In planning for an improved visitor experience that would include the restoration of historic buildings and the construction of new at the Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Ill., the National Park Service used the NEPA process to fulfill its Section 106 responsibilities. | Credit: National Park Service

NEPA analysis is the cornerstone of the federal environmental review process where federal agencies are required to consider the implications of their actions on the environment; Section 106 of the NHPA requires that federal agencies consider the effects of their actions on historic properties prior to making decisions on whether and/or how to proceed. NEPA and NHPA require federal officials to “stop, look, and listen” before making decisions that affect historic properties and the human environment.

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The Bethesda Mission, a site that was under consideration for a new federal courthouse in Harrisburg, Pa., would have been adversely affected if the plans had gone forward. Due to historic preservation and other community concerns identified as part of the NEPA and Section 106 requirement, a new site was selected which is adequate for the courts, serves the needs of the community, and avoids adverse effects to historic properties. | Credit: Bethesda Mission

The handbook is intended to assist federal planners, Section 106, and NEPA practitioners, and others in improving the integration, defined as coordination or substitution, of the NEPA analysis and documentation and Section 106 compliance to establish efficiencies and improve the effectiveness of environmental reviews. Further, the handbook will help stakeholders and members of the public better understand the opportunities for input and participation in federal decision making. The handbook provides practical advice and tips on how to align the independent statutory obligations of NEPA and Section 106 review. It is the result of a collaborative and productive effort between CEQ and the ACHP that benefited from broad federal agency participation.

The handbook, titled NEPA and NHPA, A Handbook for Integrating NEPA and Section 106, details the similarities and differences between NEPA review and the Section 106 process, explains core terms and definitions, and provides roadmaps for coordinating NEPA and Section 106 review and for substituting the NEPA process for Section 106 purposes. It touches on compliance during disasters and emergencies, and explains the timing and documentation requirements of both statutes. Further, it identifies opportunities for public involvement and more informed consultation with interested parties.

Because so many federal projects may be “categorically excluded” from NEPA review, this handbook explains how to coordinate Section 106 review with the analysis to determine if further NEPA review is required. Illustrations, flowcharts, and case studies are also included. The case studies were selected as examples of how federal agencies conducted the NEPA process for different types of projects. Each case study also has a link to the agency web site for further information.

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In order to use Community Development Block Grants to demolish a derelict structure or to design infill redevelopment in a blighted neighborhood, local governments must comply with Section 106 and NEPA. | Credit: Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

In the handbook's appendices, readers are provided a chart comparing relevant definitions as well as a checklist for preparing or reviewing NEPA documents when utilizing the substitution approach.  While the handbook is only advisory, CEQ and the ACHP encourage federal agencies to consider how they might integrate its practical tips and recommendations into agency NEPA and Section 106 procedures.

CEQ and the ACHP provide useful advice about NEPA and NHPA integration in the handbook. The handbook explains how integration is most successful when implemented as early as possible in project planning. Questions are included that practitioners should consider in selecting either the coordination or substitution approach. It recommends the development of an environmental review schedule, which would include clearly defined roles and project milestones. Practitioners are also encouraged to establish a comprehensive communication plan to educate stakeholders on how NEPA and NHPA can work together, ensure meaningful outreach and consultation, and use the NEPA and Section 106 processes and information to inform one another.

CEQ and the ACHP are currently circulating the handbook to a broad audience and beginning a series of training and informational sessions, including a session at the upcoming National Trust conference entitled, "Can Two Become One? NEPA and NHPA in the 21st Century." Readers should visit the ACHP’s website to view the handbook and other useful information about the Section 106 process: http://www.achp.gov/nepa106.html.

Stay tuned for more information!

Milford Wayne Donaldson is the chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and former state historic preservation officer of California.