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Starting the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) Review Process

Most large-scale development projects on American Indian and Alaska Native lands are required to go through the NEPA review process.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is primary federal entity responsible for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance on Indian trust lands.  

The NEPA process aims to study and disclose the significant impacts a proposed action may have on the quality of the human environment. 

The Branch of Environmental and Cultural Resources Management (BECRM) and NEPA coordinators at your BIA Regional Office can help you start the environmental review process.

Questions to Ask

The initial step in the NEPA process is determining if an action is subject to NEPA review. Some of the first questions you should ask are: 

  • Is the proposed action subject to BIA control? 
  • Will the action have effects that can be meaningfully evaluated?  
  • Is the action exempt from NEPA? 

After determining if the action is subject to NEPA review, additional questions will then be asked to determine the level of review and the kind of documentation required. 

  • Are significant effects expected? 
  • Is the action a categorical exclusion? 
  • Are there extraordinary circumstances? 
  • Is the action covered by an existing NEPA document?

It’s advisable to contact your BIA Regional Office and speak with a NEPA coordinator, who can offer the most direct and accurate advice in answering these questions.

NEPA Compliance Documents

There are five documents that BIA may prepare to comply with NEPA:  

  1. A Categorical Exclusion Exception Review (CEER) Checklist 
  2. An Environmental Assessment 
  3. A Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) 
  4. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) 
  5. A Record of Decision (ROD) 

The assigned BIA official with decision-making authority must sign the appropriate documents. 

The paperwork can be prepared internally, or they can be prepared by Tribal programs that may have contracts or self-governance compacts with BIA. 

However, the ultimate responsibility for complying with NEPA and for assuring the accuracy and sufficiency of NEPA documentation lies with BIA. 

It’s advisable to work with BIA’s NEPA coordinators, who can offer guidance in preparing the documents needed throughout the process.

Types of Actions

Actions Started by BIA

The BIA programs often directly fund or undertake a variety of actions on Indian trust lands that require NEPA compliance.  

Sometimes these plans are prepared directly by the BIA, but other times they are in partnership with Tribes or written directly by Tribes with funding provided through BIA. 

Actions Proposed by Others 

Most proposals to use or develop resources on Indian trust lands also call for a NEPA review.  

Applicants may include Tribal governments and individual Tribal members, as well as other federal, state and local agencies and private individuals or corporations. 

NEPA reviews are likely required for proposals for rights-of-wayfee to trust land acquisitions, and leases

Administrative Actions 

Like many bureaus in the Department of the Interior, BIA is responsible for a variety of actions that do not cause significant environmental effects that can be meaningfully evaluated. These would include routine administrative procedures such as budget processing and equipment purchases. 

BIA generally considers these to be administrative actions that do not fall under the procedural requirements of NEPA and do not require a review.  

NEPA Exemptions 

Other than administrative actions, there are very few actions that are exempt from a NEPA review.   

 You should contact BECRM or the NEPA coordinators at your BIA Regional Office for guidance about specific circumstances where environmental analysis may not be required. 

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