A Small Window into the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969

Leading Up to the Policy

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has a similar history to its cultural resource legislation cousins, such as the National Historic Preservation Act, in that it was implemented in reaction to destructive processes.  According to King (2013:23), “the publication and widespread popularity of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the need for federal government action to protect the environment came to be widely recognized.”  If you are not familiar with Carson’s work, it highlighted how indiscriminate use of pesticides, like DDT, was damaging the health of the environment, wildlife, and people.  There also was the constant development of highways, cities, and so on.  Areas of environmental importance were being negatively impacted by unchecked development.  Something was necessary to slow down the process and force people to consider all of the potential impacts that could harm the ‘quality of the human environment.’  And, that’s where NEPA comes in.

NEPA was passed by Congress in 1969 and signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970.  This created a national policy of providing a detailed statement of environmental impacts, “subsequently referred to as an environmental impact statement (EIS), for every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment” (Luther 2005:1).

 Goals of NEPA

  • The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ): provide advice to the president on environmental issues, monitor the overall state of the environment, and require the president to submits an annual report on the environment to Congress.
  • Provide guidance to help agencies plan and manage all federal actions.
  • Require agencies to consider adverse environmental effects (direct and indirect impacts), create alternatives to these actions, etc.
  • Provide the public a means and opportunity to be involved in federal agency planning efforts (i.e. a new trail being constructed on National Park Service Lands).

NEPA and Cultural Resources

There is wording in NEPA referring to historic and cultural resources present on public lands. For example, the policy states that Federal programs must “preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain, wherever possible, an environment which supports diversity, and variety of individual choice” (1970:2).   Consequently, negative impacts to archaeological resources must be considered during any federal action, just like the Section 106 process outlined in the NHPA.  Since performing the Section 106 process is necessary for federal archaeologists, much of what is needed for NEPA compliance can be achieved through Section 106 (i.e. copy and paste the work into the NEPA document).  Both NEPA and Section 106 are crucial in protecting and preserving the past.


King, Thomas

2013 Cultural Resource Laws and Practice. Fourth Edition. AltaMira Press, New York.

Luther, Linda

2005 The National Environmental Policy Act: Background and Implementation. CRS Report for Congress. Congressional Research Service.

United States Congress

1970  National Environmental Policy Act: 42 USC 4371, March 5, 1970. Washington, D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office.




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