Of America’s landmark environmental laws, only one statute has protected so much of our natural heritage – public lands, national forests and even the sea – for so long. It’s probably the most important environmental law that you’ve never heard of. Unfortunately, the White House does know about the law, and it is hell-bent on destroying it.

Ironically, a Republican president was responsible for authorizing the very statute now threatened by President Bush. On Jan. 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act. Commonly known by its acronym, NEPA directs federal agencies to “prevent or eliminate damage to the environment.” Okay, but what exactly does that mean? People understand what the Clean Air Act does: it protects the air we breathe. The same goes for other well-known, self-explanatory laws like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Without diminishing NEPA’s significance, therein lies the reason for its relative obscurity.

If NEPA were a Latin word it would mean, “look before you leap.” That’s because the law requires federal agencies to take a hard look at – and report to the public – all the ways that a project might harm the environment. Because NEPA requires the government to include citizens in its decisions, countless wild places have been spared from the effects of poor planning. Thanks to NEPA, people get to have a say in whether oil and gas companies can drill in Utah’s redrock canyons; whether timber companies can clearcut Alaska’s Tongass National Forest; whether barges can dump trash off our coasts; and whether federal tax dollars can be spent on a new highway (or even a light rail system or bike trails) in your neighborhood.

For more than 30 years, as federal agencies have considered those kinds of projects, NEPA has given a voice to people with questions and concerns about the possible consequences for public lands. NEPA’s open process has ensured that the agencies’ final decisions balance economic needs with environmental and public health considerations.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration is so driven by a pro-industry, pro-development agenda that NEPA poses a bureaucratic obstacle that can only be overcome by waiving environmental protections and by shutting people out of the process. NEPA simply has no value to a White House that prefers making decisions behind closed doors, usually with the help of industry lobbyists and for the sole benefit of corporate interests.

Circumventing or dismantling NEPA protections is the quickest way for the administration to open up America’s last remaining wild lands to rampant energy development, logging and other damaging activities. The Bush administration is doing just that, chipping away at the law agency-by-agency, project-by-project. Witness the steady stream of weakening actions, including an executive order by President Bush directing federal agencies to “expedite” energy-related permits; new rules requiring agencies to identify and eliminate “impediments” to oil and gas drilling; “categorical exclusions” exempting certain logging projects from standard review requirements; a list of a dozen or more controversial highway projects to be completed at an “accelerated” pace; or a special White House task force charged with finding ways to “streamline” or roll back NEPA protections based on industry complaints.

NEPA is considered the Magna Carta of environmental protection, the foundation on which all other environmental laws are built. But more than that, NEPA reminds us that his land is our land, that America’s shared resources belong to us all, and that we have a fundamental right to determine what happens with them. Indeed, at its heart, NEPA embodies the promise we owe to future generations to safeguard our treasured resources and pass on a healthy environment.

As the White House quietly goes about trying to cut the heart out of NEPA, it is banking on the fact that most Americans know little about the law. One thing people need to know is how much America stands to lose if NEPA protections are taken away. All the more reason we must fight to keep that from happening.

John Adams is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, www.nrdc.org. This article originally appeared at www.TomPaine.com