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This Land Is Our Land

Republicans Want to Take the Public Out of Public Lands Decisions

The GOP is set to kill a rule that some rural communities have embraced.

Grennan Milliken

Bureau of Land Management

Update 3/8/2017: Late yesterday afternoon, the Senate followed the House's lead and voted to scrap the Bureau of Land Management's Planning 2.0 rule, which had aimed to increase public input and participation in the future development of public lands. The rule, implemented last summer, had been in the works for years and was welcomed among many western communities. But in spite of strong public opposition to overturning it, Congressional Republicans voted along party lines to do so. The rule was overturned with an arcane but powerful tool known as the Congressional Review Act. Under this sledgehammer mechanism, the BLM cannot propose a rule like Planning 2.0 ever again.

In a public statement Democratic Representative of Arizona and ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Raul M. Grijalva, said " Republicans are more concerned with scrapping anything associated with President Obama than supporting good policy and the modernization of American government," adding "I can't believe they thought this was what the country demanded they work on this week."           

Congressional Republicans are set to kill a rule next week that has given the American public more power over how its 250 million acres of public lands are used. The rule was supported by their own party for many years.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM)is tasked with deciding on which parcels of land different activities like grazing, mining or drilling should be allowed. But in the past, many parties, like ranchers and hikers, had been largely left out of the decision-making process resulting in costly lawsuits. So the BLM came up with the Planning 2.0 rule, which aims to increase "opportunities for early engagement by state and local government, Tribes, partner agencies, stakeholders, and the public."

"We were getting a tremendous amount of feedback particularly from western constituents, that our processes were too cumbersome, too long, not transparent enough," Jesse Juen, a retired BLM State Director from New Mexico, told Motherboard. He spent 32 years with the agency and now is President of the Public Lands Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of public lands.

"What we wanted to do was engage with a more collaborative process right up front. Before we even say 'ok we're going to do a plan,' actually just get out there with everybody and say 'what is it you want to see." he said.

Planning 2.0 is widely supported by early adopter counties—many of whom are heavily Republican. Indeed, the rule came about in part because of many Republicans' calls for a change in management practice of public lands planning. Yet, in a strange turn of events, Republicans in Congress have decided to destroy the rule with the Congressional Review Act, an arcane but powerful tool that would not only overturn it, but make it impossible to reinstate the idea.
The reasons House Republicans have given for overturning the rule match those for implementing the rule in the first place. Republican Representative Scott Tipton of Colorado, a leading sponsor of the effort to smother 2.0, said in a public statement that he was "deeply troubled" that the BLM didn't "provide an opportunity for meaningful public involvement during the development of its Planning 2.0 rule."

"The rule," he wrote further, "would increasingly shift decision-making ability from those local communities and their local BLM officials to unelected bureaucrats in Washington."

But in a hearing before the House Committee of Natural Resources, Chuck McAfee, a third generation farmer and landowner in Southwest Colorado, spoke in support of the threatened rule. He suggested that local politicians were more concerned about jockeying for power with the federal government than to heed the voices of their constituents who supported the rule.

"I'm a local and I'm concerned," he said. "I'm a life member of the local chapter of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. We want our voices to be listened to and heard."

Juen said people in the western US are often frustrated that lawmakers in Washington, who often have no experience on the ground, sometimes make decisions against the will of the people. "There are some genuine concerns," he said.

But he contended that these concerns could easily be addressed and remedied by the BLM, and that using the CRA to nullify the rule is counter productive. "I do believe that's a political motivation."

What that motivation is exactly, remains unclear. Phil Hanceford, policy expert at the Wilderness Society, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the nation's public lands, told Motherboard in a phone call that it's  "a knee-jerk reaction to rules finalised by the previous administration," he added. "That's it. This should be a non-issue."

The CRA is so powerful that it had only been previously used once successfully since 1996. Under this current Congress, however, Republicans have already used it twice to undo stream protection and fossil fuel transparency rules.

The Western Governors Association, which represents the governors of 19 Western states, has been critical of aspects of the rule, but even so, recognizes the folly of using the CRA to scrap it. It sent a letter to Congress in early February asking them to hold off.

"The Congressional Review Act is a sledgehammer," said Hanceford. "To the extent that there are problems with the rule, the CRA is the worst thing that could be used" to fix them, he said.