Work stops for advisers to BLM
Western Coloradans tasked with speaking their minds to the federal Bureau of Land Management about the issues the agency faces have generally gotten the silent treatment from the government about why their work has been put on hold.
The Interior Department under the Trump administration has suspended meetings of BLM Resource Advisory Councils and similar groups pending a review process, mystifying some council members and also angering some of them.
Doug Atchley, a Delta County commissioner who serves on the advisory council for the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, said members of that group weren’t given a reason when they were told their meetings were being suspended until further notice. That happened just before a meeting that had been scheduled for May 3.
“It got canceled and that’s the last I heard,” he said.
Atchley isn’t particularly concerned about what will become of the council because a lot of the work it has been involved with was completed when the BLM recently finalized its plan for the conservation area, which includes parts of Mesa, Delta and Montrose counties. Now it’s more a matter of implementing the plan, he said.
But Wes McStay, a Moffat County rancher who sits on an advisory council for northwest Colorado, is none too happy with the suspension of its work.
“I don’t like it,” he said.
He said the advisory council program is “a good thing. I don’t know why they want to suspend it.”
He has his suspicions, though.
“I just don’t believe they’re interested in diverse opinions. They have their opinion and anyone who reinforces it, great, but I get the feeling that they don’t want to hear any dissent or anything different,” McStay said.
McStay was one of several dozen members of various BLM councils who signed a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke calling for reinstatement of council meetings. The letter said reinstatement is particularly important given the fact that the Interior Department is currently taking public comments as part of a review of some national monument designations by past presidents under the Antiquities Act.
“We believe it is inappropriate to cancel an essential mechanism for public input and oversight in advance of a massive call for public input,” the letter says.
Eight Democratic U.S. senators, including Michael Bennet of Colorado, also have written Zinke to voice concern about why the meetings were suspended during the review, the general lack of an explanation for the action, and what the future holds for the councils.
“During your confirmation hearing, you stressed the importance of local input and collaboration on public land management issues. This is exactly what RACs were formed to do and there are examples of RACs across the country contributing to successful projects that improve the quality of our public lands,” the senators wrote.
Interior spokesperson Heather Swift released a statement to The Daily Sentinel from the department saying that it “is currently conducting a review of the charters and charges of Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) Advisory Commissions in an effort to maximize feedback from these boards and to ensure their compliance with both FACA and the President’s recent executive orders. An initial roll call of the advisory committees revealed that many of the committees advising the Department were not operating at their full potential, were not using taxpayer dollars efficiently, or were not meeting basic benchmarks of FACA. Many had several vacancies, making the board inoperable, and others simply hadn’t met for some time during the previous administration.
“The review process is meant to identify committees that merit improvement in order to fully support their mission, serve the local communities, and ensure the Department was getting local feedback to the maximum extent possible. As the review proceeds in the coming days and weeks, many committees will resume their regularly scheduled meetings, and the Department fully expects the majority of committees to resume by September.”
The statement said several committees already have been given exemptions or clearance to resume meeting.
It said what is occurring “is a standard review process which previous administrations have also conducted during the transition process. The goal is to institutionalize state and local input and ongoing collaboration, particularly in communities surrounding public lands.”
Swift didn’t respond to a request for any specific examples of inefficient use of taxpayer dollars by advisory groups.
According to the senators’ letter, Interior created the advisory councils in 1995 as a way to get diverse public input on public land management issues.
“RACs have helped inform decisions on issues related to recreation, land use planning, grazing, oil and gas exploration, and wildfire management,” the senators said.
McStay said members of the northwest council take it seriously and put in a lot of time and effort in preparing for and going to meetings. The positions are unpaid, and while members get reimbursed for travel expenses, he remembers a time during a government budget-related shutdown several years ago when council members traveled on their own dime to Grand Junction from places like Walden and Craig to make a meeting.
Like some others, Luke Schafer, West Slope advocacy director for Conservation Colorado and a member on the same council on which McStay serves, found it curious that the meetings were suspended at the same time the monument review is ongoing.
“Members of the RACs across the West have pretty intimate knowledge of the issues regarding national monuments and surrounding landscapes and communities,” he said.
While they still can comment as individuals about the monuments, Interior won’t hear from the councils formally on the matter, Schafer said.
McStay said the BLM has taken the advice of the councils seriously. If the diverse groups can reach a consensus recommendation, the BLM almost always happily goes along with it, he said. Even when a consensus isn’t reached, the agency is able to hear a full range of opinions, he said.
Councils also make recommendations on fees, such as a campground fee that was imposed in the North Fruita Desert area.
“That’s doing great. Everybody’s happy with it as far as I know,” McStay said.
Schafer said he thinks the councils are important in the sense that they bring together a wide-ranging group, such as mining interests, oil and gas representatives and environmentalists, who are able to hear and better understand other points of view and become more informed on issues.
“To me that might be one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a RAC member,” he said.
Said McStay, “We’ve tried very hard to not let it get political. There’s really some fine people there — intelligent, ethical people you can disagree with without being disagreeable, and find solutions where everybody wins.”
The alternative, he said, is lawsuits by special-interest groups that prevent the BLM from talking with them.
In those cases, “Things don’t get settled. They snowball in the opposite direction and get so polarized,” McStay said.
Mesa County Commissioner John Justman served on the northwest council, and now serves on the council for southwest Colorado after a reorganization by the BLM. He said he’s been hearing that the advisory councils work better in Colorado than they do in some other places.
He also has been impressed by the diversity of the councils and said he’s learned a lot about issues ranging from wild horses to archeology as a council member. The councils also lead to a lot more interaction with BLM staff, he said.
“It wouldn’t be a help for us to lose them, for certain,” he said of the councils. “I think they’re definitely of some benefit.”
Rifle native David Bernhardt, during a Senate hearing last week on his nomination to become deputy Interior secretary, said the councils were useful and important when he previously worked in the Interior Department. He committed to looking into allowing their meetings to continue again if he is confirmed for the job.
“I certainly believe that that community input and involvement is essential,” he said.