Congress Says ‘No’ to More ‘Public’ in Public Lands. Now What?
Before they killed the first major overhaul in 30-plus years of planning rules for much of our public lands, members of Congress railed against top-down management. They denounced the Bureau of Land Management’s Planning 2.0 initiative as a made-in-D.C., one-size-fits-all set of unnecessary regulations for developing land use plans that would govern activities on landscapes where people hunt, fish, recreate, drill for oil and gas, mine and graze livestock.
Then Congress voted to overturn the revised rule. After the president signed the bill officially declaring Planning 2.0 dead, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, House sponsor of the bill eliminating the rule, said: “Planning 2.0 would have given the federal government and radical environmental groups control over land use and resource planning in our state, at the expense of local officials and stakeholders.”
Actually, federal agencies have been managing national public lands, the lands that belong to all Americans, for many decades. But they do so under laws, like the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which require them to publicize their plans, take comments from the public and invite county and state officials to the table.
As for “radical”? Only if you think giving the public more of a voice in decisions on public lands is radical.
What Planning 2.0 Was — And Was Not
One of Planning 2.0 provisions provided the public earlier and more frequent opportunities to comment. The idea was to give elected officials, business owners, hunters, anglers, oil and gas operators, hikers and others a chance to weigh in before the proposals were formalized and difficult, if not impossible, to change.
Another goal was to take a big-picture look at a landscape rather than make decisions on a project-by-project basis. The reasoning was that wildlife habitat, migration routes or waterways don’t conveniently stop at BLM field office boundaries or even state lines. Activities on public lands can have far-reaching effects. It’s wise to know what those might be before approving a 20-year resource management plan covering hundreds of thousands of acres.
So, the rule killed by Congress was an attempt to get a better lay of the landscape and sense of what was important to affected communities — not a top-down, cookie-cutter template.
Another thing Planning 2.0 wasn’t? It was not a hastily written, so-called “midnight rule” launched as the Obama administration left town.
The first major update of planning rules since the early 1980s was written over years. Moreover, the BLM held public meetings across the country and fielded thousands of comments. Dr. Barry Noon, a professor in Colorado State University’s Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Department, was one of the scientists who helped develop the landscape approach to planning. It focused on multiple, diverse stakeholders, identifying their rights and responsibilities and ensuring the process was transparent.
“I worked for two-and-a-half years with a phenomenal, dedicated group of people,” Noon says. “To characterize Planning 2.0 as something pulled out of the hat at the last minute is false.”
Critics claim the landscape-scale approach to planning favored conservation over other uses of public lands. But Noon says it was intended to consider the potential cumulative impacts on an area and make sure people understood the trade-offs and that “ecological systems are not infinite.”
Another misconception: that public-lands polices and plans are written by D.C. bureaucrats who’ve never seen the areas under review. When he was with the U.S. Forest Service, Noon lived around the people affected by his agency’s decisions.
“Those of us who work on these things, we live in these communities. It’s not as though we don’t have a sense of compassion for the tradeoffs,” Noon adds.
The Public Wants More Public Input
Commissioners in Park County, Colo., and Missoula County, Mont., were among the local elected officials who asked members of their congressional delegations to help save the updated planning process. The Park County commissioners wrote in a 2016 letter that the existing process lacks transparency and “adequate opportunities for public involvement, particularly early in the process.”
Missoula County has supported the BLM’s efforts to improve how it manages public lands, says Dave Strohmaier, on the board of commissioners.
“Last year, the commissioners supported the changes in the BLM’s Planning 2.0 initiative that gave our constituents more opportunities to comment on things we all care about — fish, wildlife, clean air and water, recreation,” Strohmaier says. “We’ll continue to encourage the BLM, other federal agencies and our lawmakers to keep the public informed and make sure we have plenty of opportunities to be heard on these lands that belong to all Americans.”
Congress invoked the Congressional Review Act to throw out Planning 2.0. The act prohibits approval of another rule that’s substantially the same.
However, the BLM can still work to improve its process and the planning decisions that result despite the loss of Planning 2.0, says Kate Zimmerman, the National Wildlife Federation’s public lands policy director.
“There’s nothing in the current regulations that would prevent BLM from encouraging more local participation and being more transparent,” Zimmerman adds. “A more open and transparent process would benefit both the public and the agency. It could result in more buy-in and less conflict.”
If Interior Department officials and Congress want to improve public-lands management, if they want to move forward rather than backward, a good place to start is by visiting communities, like Park County in Colorado, that have invited them to see for themselves how inclusive, bottom-up efforts are working.
The answer is not to do what they’ve accused others of doing — hand down decisions without getting out on the ground and listening to their constituents.