“It’s likely to be available no earlier than late December or early January,” Seashore Superintendent Mike Murray said in a meeting with reporters last week. “But I just can’t tell you exactly when.”
“That is later than we had hoped,” Murray added.
In a September meeting, Murray said he hoped that the document would be available for public review in late November or early December. In a September meeting, Murray said he hoped that the document would be available for public review in late November or early December.
As the release of the DEIS gets pushed back, the Park Service comes under increasing pressure to complete the ORV rulemaking process under the terms of a consent decree that now sets ORV rules and protections for nesting birds and turtles on the seashore.
Under the consent decree, the Park Service is required to have a record of decision on a final rule by Dec. 31, 2010, and to implement a special regulation on ORV rules in the seashore by April 1, 2011.
Obviously time is running out to ram a big and complicated document through the bureaucratic morass of Washington, D.C.
The Federal Register announcement of the members of the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee hung around desks in D.C. for months and months before it was finally published and became official.
The Park Service really can’t afford a repeat of that performance.
This time U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle, who signed the consent decree, is waiting.
And the Park Service has 13 months to meet his expectations.
The Park Service has been without an ORV rule, which has been required by federal regulations for more than 30 years. Park officials were hopeful that the rule would be worked out by a negotiated rulemaking committee of stakeholders. After about a year and a half of meetings, the committee ended its work without making a recommendation to the Park Service.
So now the Park Service must do the rulemaking.
Operating under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), park leadership must complete a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on off-road vehicle operation in the seashore, choose a preferred alternative, consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the alternative, draft a proposed rule, get the DEIS approved by the Department of the Interior, get it published in the Federal Register for 60 days of public comments, and have public meetings in the state and the regional on the DEIS and preferred alternative.
The delay, Murray said, is not due to a “lack of resources.”
He said he is spending 100 percent of his time reading draft chapters, and that several other staff members are also devoting all, or almost all, of their time reviewing the draft.
“I think it’s just the complexity of the plan,” he said.
Murray said there are five chapters in the DEIS, and each goes through three rounds of review. On Nov. 18, he said, park staff was on the last round for the first three chapters and almost finished with the second round on chapters four and five. Chapter 4 is the environmental analysis.
“The first round,” he said, “is most complicated….And once the second round is done, the third goes pretty fast.”
Murray said that his goal is to “pave the way” for an expedited review at higher levels of the National Park Service and Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.
“The Park Service,” he said, “is obligated to do the best we can to meet our deadlines, but we are also responsible to develop a good plan….There is a fine line between quick and good.”
A Notice of Availability of DEIS will kick off the 60-day public comment period. The public will be able to respond to the park planning Web site, by writing via regular mail, or in person at a series of public meetings.
Murray said there would probably be about five “hearing-style” meetings for the public to get information and make formal comments.
He thinks three will be on the Outer Banks – perhaps on Hatteras, Ocracoke, and the northern beaches. One will be in central North Carolina, perhaps Raleigh, and one will be in the Northern Virginia-Washington, D.C. area.
Murray said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were large turnouts at the meetings.
After the Park Service has received comments on the DEIS, it must prepare a “comment analysis” and “response to comments.”
Along with that, NPS will publish a proposed rule that corresponds to the preferred alternative in the DEIS. There is also a 60-day public comment period on the proposed rule.
The next step is a Final Environmental Impact Statement and, finally, the Record of Decision.
Murray indicated that the park staff has identified the preferred alternative, but would say only that “different stakeholders from the committee will recognize some of their work.”
Here is the tentative timeline that Murray gave at last September’s meeting with the media, and that the Park Service must stick to fairly closely to meet the deadlines in the consent decree:
• Winter, 2009. Office of Management and Budget reviews benefit/cost and regulatory analyses for the proposed rule, meetings, and comment period.
• Spring, 2010. Analysis of public comment on DEIS is completed, NPS receives biological opinion from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, analysis of public comment on proposed rule begins, Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is prepared and responses to public comment begin.
• Summer, 2010. FEIS and responses to public comments are completed, FEIS is approved by the Department of the Interior, Notice of Availability for FEIS is published in Federal Register.
• Fall, 2010. The Record of decision on ORV rulemaking is drafted and signed and a summary is published in the Federal Register.
• Winter, 2010. The final rule is approved by DOI and published in the Federal Register.
Murray says the completed DEIS will be about 500 pages – “a ream of paper.”
Many of us are eager to weigh in with comments, so I guess the message here may be to stock up on printer ink and copy paper over the holidays and get ready for January.
Between an expected Record of Decision on the Bonner Bridge replacement and the DEIS on ORV rulemaking, we should have an interesting winter.