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Officials critical of BLM’s secrecy

Officials critical of BLM’s secrecy

Info about meetings can’t be disclosed until after decisions

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MEETEETSE, Wyo. — Elected officials working with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management say the agency’s policy of closed-door land-use planning sessions is preventing them from sharing substantive information with the public, and that details of their work will be disclosed only after key decisions have been made.

Some interest groups and individuals following the agency’s revision of resource management plans in the Bighorn Basin and other parts of the state say they feel shut out of the process.

BLM managers say that state and federal laws do not require them to open cooperator meetings to the public, and that the process is more productive when participants can speak freely, without fearing that their comments will be misconstrued or misrepresented.

Frustrations are rising among some participants as the process continues in counties across the state, with much at stake. Final plans will guide nearly every aspect of how millions of acres of public lands are managed, governing oil and gas development, off-road vehicle use, habitat management and more.

“By not having the public there, we don’t have anybody feeling weird that their comments are taken out of context or misconstrued,” said Karla Bird, field manager for the Worland BLM office.

Bird and Cody BLM field manager Mike Stewart met on Wednesday with the elected supervisors of the Meeteetse Conservation District, a cooperating group granted a seat at the table during the BLM’s multiyear plan revision process.

Bird said that the presence of a reporter would prevent her and Stewart from discussing so-called “pre-decisional” information in the meeting, which was the primary purpose of the gathering.

“We certainly would prefer the press and public to have access to these meetings. We don’t have any desire to be operating behind closed doors,” said Steve Jones, resource management coordinator for the district, commenting before the meeting.

Jones said that the district is bound by an agreement imposed by the BLM as a condition for being granted cooperator status. It bans participants from publicly discussing specific information until draft and final plans have been released.

The district’s seven-page 2008 agreement with the BLM states that participants may not disclose “pre-decisional information” without prior approval, and that doing so could “result in termination” of the cooperating agreement.

Hands are tied

That has left some county commissioners fearful that any information they share with voters or the news media about the planning process could result in losing their seat at the bargaining table.

“We can’t go out and talk with our constituents,” said Park County Commissioner Jill Shockley Siggins, speaking earlier this month during a meeting of commissioners from across the Bighorn Basin.

“It’s all pre-decisional information. So that ties our hands until they come out with a plan,” she said, repeating a refrain voiced by other commissioners at the meeting.

Liz Howell, executive director of the Sheridan-based Wyoming Wilderness Association, said she has been fighting for the past year to get the BLM to open its planning meetings to the public.

“They must think the public is really stupid, that we can’t tell the difference between a decision and brainstorming,” she said.

Howell said she has lobbied BLM managers in the Powder River Basin, where the agency is also revising its RMP, to open its meetings with cooperators, but that she can’t even find out where or when the meetings are held.

Howell wrote to local BLM managers and traveled to Washington, D.C., where she complained to high-ranking agency officials there, but the process has not changed, she said.

Eddie Bateson, Wind River and Bighorn Basin District manager for the BLM, acknowledged in a March 2009 letter to Howell that the closed meetings have “caused some concern during recent public participation activities for both the Bighorn Basin and the Buffalo Resource Management Plans.”

Agency attorneys determined that cooperator meetings are not subject to state open-meetings laws, Bateson wrote.

“Although the meetings are closed in support of the deliberative process, the public is represented by, and can provide input through, their local and state elected and appointed officials,” he wrote.

Lack of expertise

“You cannot expect all cooperators to come to the table with skill sets in all these different disciplines like logging, oil and gas or other issues,” said Kathleen Jachowski, executive director of Worland-based Guardians of the Range.

Jachowski, who represents ranchers and specializes in grazing issues, said she had also asked Bateson to open cooperator meetings.

“To me, it enhances the public process tremendously,” she said.

Jachowski said that she doesn’t expect to be able to ask questions or debate issues during meetings, but that to prevent people from attending “is a big step backwards” and is “hurting the BLM’s credibility with the public.”

Jachowski and Howell both praised the process followed by the U.S. Forest Service in revising the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton forest management plans, and held it up as a model for the BLM to adopt.

Cooperator meetings with the Forest Service may be attended by anyone but don’t allow for public debate, comments or interruptions. As time allows, members of the public may make comments after the meeting.

“We’re willing to sit aside and listen, and the level of information is so much higher at cooperator meetings” with the Forest Service, Howell said.

“We decided early on that open and transparent was the only way to go,” said Susan Douglas, a spokeswoman for the Shoshone National Forest.

The two agencies follow different planning rules and are at different places in the process, she said, but the Forest Service has seen no disruptions or misinformation since opening cooperator meetings, and “never considered doing it any other way.”

Stewart, the Cody BLM field manager, said that he was unaware of major misperceptions or disruptions resulting from allowing public attendance at cooperator meetings in other states.

Such meetings in Montana, for instance, are open because of different state public-meeting laws and the involvement there of a federally recognized resource advisory council, which Wyoming lacks, he said.

Wyoming BLM managers decided that the planning process would work better without the public attending cooperator meetings, he said.

“When we’re having those kinds of discussions and building those alternatives and exchanging ideas, it seems to be more productive if we’re having those between ourselves, and not worrying or second-guessing what’s going through someone’s mind who is not part of that discussion,” Stewart said.

A draft Bighorn Basin RMP is expected to be released in early 2011. The BLM will solicit additional public comment on the alternatives outlined in that plan, with a final version implemented in 2012.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at rprevost@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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