by Joel Smith and Leah Sottile

Review or Reject?

SPOKANE -- It was widely reported earlier this month that Rep. Cathy McMorris would lead a congressional task force to "review" one of the nation's most fundamental environmental laws, leaving critics to wonder: Is "review" just another word for "discard?"

Now they've announced the location and date for the first of six nationwide hearings, at which they'll discuss whether we need these silly environmental protections anyway. Their choice? Spokane, on the day after Earth Day. Classy.

The legislation under the heat lamp, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), was signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970. It requires federal agencies to conduct thorough analyses of the environmental impacts of federally funded projects. It also requires that those agencies include the public in the decision-making process.

That means that if federal dollars were to be used for a north-south freeway tearing through North Spokane (like that's going to happen), the Department of Transportation would first have to assess the environmental impact of the freeway -- on air quality, on the river, on nearby forests, etc. -- and then give the public a say on the plans.

That's essential, says Mike Petersen of the Lands Council. He suggests that life without NEPA could result in the kinds of environmental debacles seen today with the Burlington Northern refueling depot. In that case (in which NEPA was not applicable), he says, "There was never that kind of public discourse on 'Is this is a good place? Could we maybe find a better option that could be a little more expensive but may be safer?' The public had no way to challenge that process."

But critics, while agreeing with the law in principle, have long cried that the process is disruptive, overly bureaucratic and nightmarishly litigious. They say it stalls necessary development and causes costly delays. The Bush administration has recommended streamlining the process to cut through the red tape and speed up the approval process.

McMorris stresses that Saturday's hearings are simply "listening sessions," telling the Seattle P-I a few weeks ago that the purpose of reviewing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is to "[take] into consideration its original intent, how it's been implemented and the impact it's having on the ground -- especially as it's impacting our economy."

The panel of 11 Republicans and nine Democrats will hear testimony from pre-selected witnesses, although the meeting is open to the general public. They expect to wrap up their six hearings and prepare a report in the fall. Any legislation that arises would probably be heard next year.

The NEPA Task Force Hearing starts on Saturday, April 23, at 10 am in the Phase I Building Auditorium of WSU's Riverpoint campus. -- JOEL SMITH

Take the Challenge -- COEUR D'ALENE -- Sure, we Inlander folk have cast many a downward glance at those training for Bloomsday, enjoying the spring sun on their sweat-beaded brows all while losing pound after pound after exquisite, hard-earned pound. We don't deny it. We like to call it a "defense mechanism" while pretending that it's cool to sit inside all day watching the melanin drain from our sallow skin.

But one thing we would get off our asses for is this year's inaugural NIChallenge, an adventure race penciled in for May 7. It's the first race of its kind around these parts, with the nearest of its kind as far off as Leavenworth, Wash.

This ain't no triathlon, and it sure ain't no footrace. The NIChallenge is biking, traversing trails, scaling rapids, navigating the roughest of territory, sweating, panting and gasping for life. And to make it even more adventurous, specific details of the course won't be revealed to participants until the day of the race. Teams of two or four (all male, all female or co-ed) can register for the race by May 1 at a cost of $75 per person. Participants get a free Patagonia capilene shirt and grub on the big day.

Ah, the sweet smell of adventure -- it was the tease of that very thing that got us into the newspaper biz in the first place. Unfortunately, our adventures have less to do with racing and more to do with being on the phone. -- Leah Sottile

Publication date: 04/21/05

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