Conservation groups claim public comments went missing during BLM process

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Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media, LLC

It’s no secret the Trump Administration is prioritizing energy development on public lands. But across the West, these policies are conflicting with Obama-era habitat conservation management plans created in 2015 after a decade of collaborative work between conservation groups, industry representatives and others. These earlier plans aimed to find a compromise between industry and conservationists that would protect the greater sage-grouse while not listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act, which would have limited certain public lands to use by a wide variety of stakeholders.

As Boulder Weekly reported in 2015, the language in the compromise plans was already vague and likely to allow continued oil and gas development in the sagebrush habitat required for the sage-grouse’s, and 350 other species, survival. This potential for continued habitat loss was of considerable concern given that energy development is listed as a major threat to more than 60 percent of the sage-grouse population.

Now in 2018, the Department of the Interior (DOI) is in the midst of reviewing the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sage-grouse plans that resulted from the compromises of the various groups. At the same time, state BLM offices are preparing to (if they haven’t already) lease sage-grouse habitat to oil and gas development in Colorado and throughout the West.

Last fall, as part of the public process, the BLM accepted public comments on issues that could warrant amending the plans. Recently, the agency released a scoping report summarizing the public’s input. But one thing was missing: tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of comments opposing a change to the plans.

When Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president of public lands for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), sat down to review the scoping report, she realized NWF wasn’t mentioned anywhere, despite the fact they recorded roughly 37,000 submissions from their members.

“We just weren’t there,” she says. BLM acknowledges the missing comments, saying the agency never received them based on a technical error.

While, sporadically, public comments aren’t received for a variety of reasons, this is the first time comments have gone missing on such a large scale, says BLM spokesperson Donald Smurthwaite.

“It is a problem that appears to be technological in nature and not human error,” he says.

BLM had hired a private contractor, Environmental and Planning Management Solutions, Inc, (EPMSi) headquartered in Boulder with offices around the country, to review the submissions for the scoping report. The company “has a good, reliable reputation,” Smurthwaite says, and the agency has used it before. EPMSi declined to comment for this story.

BLM is still working to determine what exactly went wrong, and is also working with NWF to incorporate its members’ submissions into the report.

According to Smurthwaite, about 42,000 comments were not received — all from conservation groups —  the majority of which were form letters and e-petition signatures from NWF.

However, NWF estimates the number to be more than twice that. “From what we gather from the conservation community, the discrepancy between the scoping report and what we believe was sent in is 100,000,” Stone-Manning says.

While the Bureau’s scoping report shows 170,000 individual comments, a coalition of conservation organizations including NWF, estimates that 267,000 were submitted.

NWF’s form letter, which could be accessed online, calls for caution in amending the land management plans for fear that doing so could jeopardize habitat and cause the bird to be listed as an endangered species.

“I am concerned that if major changes are made to these plans, then what we all wanted to avoid — the listing of the greater sage-grouse — could become a reality,” the letter reads. “The plans have not been given an adequate chance to work, and I believe they need to be afforded that chance. Too many people worked too hard to find common ground. We need to honor their work.”

The online template for NWF’s form letter allows for individuals to edit and/or completely rewrite the letter, and it’s hard to say how many of the missing letters had been modified.

“For me, what happened is appalling,” Stone-Manning says. “But even more concerning is even with all those comments in, it looks like they’re not going to listen to the American people. And that’s bad for sage-grouse, and it’s bad for the West.”

Form letters and petition signatures are considered in the scoping process, Smurthwaite says, but they tend to be “less valuable” to the agency than those that “suggest new management strategies or help us to become acquainted or refer to new research that has been completed in the last few years.”

“We don’t want to minimize or discount any person or organization’s comments, but some submissions are definitely more useful than others,” he says.

“First we learned that the oil and gas industry had a fairly heavy hand in this process behind closed doors and our only recourse is through public comment period,” Stone-Manning says. “To [now] hear that our members literally didn’t even get heard was incredibly upsetting and concerning for democracy.”

As Stone-Manning’s comments suggest, the review process has already been fraught with controversy, as conservation groups have criticized the DOI for catering to the oil and gas industry to the exclusion of other important stakeholders. Based on thousands of documents obtained through an open records request, Western Values Project Deputy Director Jayson O’Neill says industry lobbyists and trade groups have been given “special treatment” in the review process.

“Over a five-month period … there were meetings at least once a week in between industry and Interior representatives, and those same meetings weren’t afforded to the public,” O’Neill says. “It seems like the deck has very much been stacked against the public.”

All of which makes the missing comments in the BLM’s scoping report even more concerning for some conservationists.

“The scoping report is one of the most important guiding documents as to what’s going to happen,” O’Neill says. “Not having public comments is really, really troubling to us and other folks, that this document is legitimate and really weighs all the people’s voices.”

It remains to be seen how or if the land use management plans will be amended, as the DOI’s review process is expected to last at least several more months. In Colorado, the state BLM office is working with state agencies on potential changes, and specific alternatives should be ready for another round of public comments this summer.

In the meantime, the DOI released a memo at the end of December directing all BLM field offices that they no longer need to prioritize oil and gas leasing and development outside of sage-grouse habitat before leasing within it. In Colorado, the BLM hasn’t sold any oil and gas leases in sage grouse habitat for the last two years, since the management plans took effect. However, a June 2018 lease sale in Northwestern Colorado is offering a total of 58,694 acres, 52 percent of which contain at least some priority or general sage grouse habitat.

In other states around the West, notably Nevada, Montana and Wyoming, BLM has already leased priority habitat since Trump took office, with more expected in 2018.

“It’s kind of a ‘while we’re waiting to actually change the plans, we’re going to change the way the plans work anyways,’” says Nada Culver, director of the The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “They are already undermining the commitment to prioritize leasing and development outside of habitat. At the same time, they’re looking at what other protections that are in the plans they can weaken.”

This comes on the heels of last year’s “energy dominance” directives, when Trump gave a green light to energy development across the West, especially on public lands. Under such policies, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts in its 2018 forecast the U.S. will be a net-energy exporter within the next 10 years. All of which leaves the decades-long collaborative effort that originally produced the sage-grouse management plans at risk.

“Dominance makes no room for collaboration,” Stone-Manning says. “There was plenty of land under these plans open to oil and gas, there was room for all stakeholders to be on the landscape, including the bird itself. And what we’re seeing coming out of this administration and the Secretary [Zinke]’s office is no longer making room for any other needs but for oil and gas.”

Photo by Jeremy Roberts of Conservation Media, LLC