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The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulations, enacted pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act, require that an agency must examine a proposed action in the context of other projects when the action is related to other actions with individually insignificant but cumulatively significant impacts. An Environmental Impact Statement should be prepared if it is reasonable to anticipate a cumulatively significant impact on the environment. Significance cannot be avoided by breaking it down into small component parts. The regulations define a cumulative impact as the impact on the environment which results from the incremental impact of the actions when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions.
In January 1997, the Merced River in Yosemite Valley overflowed its banks during a severe flood. This flooding caused substantial damage to buildings in the Yosemite Lodge area, located near the base of Yosemite Falls. Fifty percent of the public lodging facilities and one hundred percent of employee housing were damaged or destroyed. In response to the flood damage, the National Park Service ("NPS") quickly developed a plan to construct new lodge facilities nearby so that it could continue to accommodate the same number of overnight visitors in the area. In addition to proposing the new facilities, the NPS set out to make other structural changes that it believed would improve the visitor experience in the Yosemite Lodge area. The lodge development plan crafted by NPS in the wake of the floods envisions substantial structural changes in the area, including removing the damaged lodging facilities and re-routing the lots. NPS conceived the lodge development plan in the context of the ongoing park-wide planning process that has been in motion for almost 20 years. This process began with the adoption of the 1980 General Management Plan ("GMP"), which sought to guide planning throughout Yosemite National Park. The GMP set forth, in a very broad manner, the Park Service's goals with respect to visitor accommodations, employee housing, concession services, traffic concerns, and several other issues relating to the overall operation of the park. The GMP was accompanied by an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”), as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. NPS adopted another major planning document in 1992--the Concession Services Plan ("CSP"). The CSP amended the GMP, reducing the number of overnight visitors that the GMP sought to accommodate in the park, and making other minor changes to the original plan. The CSP addressed park-wide planning issues in equally broad terms as the GMP. As with the GMP, the CSP was adopted after the Park Service issued an Environmental Impact Statement.
In 1996, NPS initiated the Valley Implementation Plan ("VIP"), which seeks to implement the broad directives of the GMP and CSP by detailing, on a site-specific basis, the development projects with respect to visitor accommodations throughout the park. The Park Service decided that it was necessary to conceive these site-specific proposals in the course of one large, park-wide planning process in order to ensure that the overall impact of development within the park could be adequately monitored. The VIP has not yet been completed; the Park Service envisions that a draft will be submitted for public comment some time in the next few months. As with prior park-wide planning documents, the VIP will be accompanied by an Environmental Impact Statement. Development activities pertaining to the Yosemite Lodge area were originally included in the VIP. However, in the wake of the flood, NPS determined that it needed to expedite the construction process in order to accommodate the number of visitors envisioned in the previous park-wide planning documents. Therefore, it separated the lodge area from the VIP process and crafted the Yosemite Lodge Area Development Plan on an individual basis. In April 1997, less than four months after the flood, NPS drafted an Environmental Assessment, which set forth an initial version of the plan. In July 1997, NPS issued a Finding of No Significant Impact ("FONSI") which determined that an Environmental Impact Statement was not required for the project.
Plaintiff Sierra Club challenged the lodge development plan, as described in the modified FONSI, on the grounds that it violated both the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act ("WSRA") and the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"). With regard to the former, Sierra Club argued that the plan will harm the Merced River area, which was protected from undue environmental encroachment by the WSRA. With regard to the latter, Sierra Club argued that NPS violated NEPA by improperly concluding that an Environmental Impact Statement was not required for the lodge development plan. On these grounds, Sierra Club sought a preliminary injunction to halt Phase 1 of the project, which includes the digging of utility trenches to support the new lodge facilities and the re-routing of a portion of Northside Drive to facilitate the creation of those trenches.
Did NPS violate the NEPA in their lodge development plans?
Defendants argued that NPS did not need to prepare an environmental impact statement because the relevant impacts, both site-specific and cumulative, were considered in prior park-wide planning documents. Defendants referred here to the 1980 General Management Plan--an umbrella document that describes in broad strokes the Park Service's intentions with respect to park maintenance, environmental restoration and protection, transportation, and visitor accommodations within the park--and the 1992 Concession Services Plan, which amends the GMP in certain areas but takes an equally broad approach to NPS activities in the Valley. Defendants argued that because these documents contemplated the kind of project that the NPS currently seeks to implement in the Yosemite Lodge area, and because the documents were adopted in accordance with NEPA, the NPS does not now need to conduct another EIS.
As an abstract matter, defendants were correct that an agency need not revisit environmental considerations that it has already resolved in prior NEPA documents. However, this language did not relieve the NPS of its obligation to conduct an EIS in the present case, because the cumulative environmental concerns raised by the lodge plan have not been previously addressed. Even if it can fairly be said, as defendants contended, that the lodge development plan was consistent with the prior park-wide planning documents, these prior documents addressed parkwide development and operations in such general terms that they could not possibly have considered the cumulative environmental impacts attendant with the implementation of site-specific development proposals throughout the park. The GMP and CSP laid out the goals of the Park Service with respect to the park in very broad terms. For instance, with respect to park operations, the GMP states that its goal is to "maintain a safe, functional, and orderly environment that provides compatible opportunities for resource preservation and enjoyment by visitors and employees." To do this, the plan sought to "locate facilities to minimize exposure to natural hazards such as rockslides, flooding, avalanche, and hazard trees." The CSP went on to contemplate that some construction of lodge facilities would occur in the Yosemite Lodge area. However, neither document specified how, when, or precisely where such construction would occur. This degree of generality with respect to the lodge area was typical of the documents. In short, the GMP, as amended by the CSP, was "a programmatic EIS providing management direction and general guidelines" that did not nearly reach the level of specificity required to obviate the need to consider the cumulative impacts of specific development proposals flowing from the general guidelines.
Furthermore, NPS was currently engaged in two major park-wide planning projects, both of which involve the preparation of Environmental Impact Statements. First, it drafted the Yosemite Valley Implementation Plan ("VIP"), which will lay out in specific terms, on a site-by-site basis, the Park Service's plans for visitor accommodations throughout the Yosemite National Park. Second, it drafted the Yosemite Valley Housing Plan ("VHP"), which will map out plans for the location and construction of employee housing in the valley. The Park Service conceded that it is addressing all other development and management projects in Yosemite National Park on a park-wide basis through these two planning documents, and it is subjecting those documents to an EIS. Only the lodge development plan was being considered separately. The purpose of the VIP "[was] to provide specific steps for carrying out the goals of the 1980 General Management Plan." The plan "propose[d] a comprehensive approach with detailed actions and a phasing schedule to fulfill the goals" of the GMP. The Park Service insisted that this comprehensive approach to site-specific implementation of the GMP was critical, rejecting the alternative approach of implementing the GMP "on a project-by-project basis without a comprehensive implementation plan." "Because [under this rejected alternative] implementation of current approved plans would be done on a piecemeal basis and without a comprehensive plan, the acreages to be developed cannot be reliably estimated." This approach clearly belied defendants' contention that NPS may now properly segment the lodge development plan from the parkwide planning process on the grounds that the cumulative environmental impacts have already been considered. If there were no longer a need to consider the cumulative impacts of site-specific development projects, NPS would not have insisted on the creation of another park-wide planning document and accompanying EIS to lend specificity to the broad outlines set forth in the GMP and CSP. As the Park Service acknowledged, the degree of environmental impact caused by park-wide development depends largely on the manner in which the site-specific proposals are implemented. To properly assess this impact, the proposals must be considered on a cumulative basis and an EIS must be prepared. By separating the lodge development plan from the larger development process, NPS has failed to formally consider the cumulative impact of its proposal. There was a substantial likelihood that this failure constitutes a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.