Cutting the Public Out of Public Lands

Analysis shows overwhelming opposition to major Interior Department policy changes

Andre F. Miller
Jan 13 · 10 min read

Under the Trump administration, the Interior Department has suppressed public involvement and input in management decisions impacting public lands, wildlife, and energy development. In nearly every step of the planning process, the public has been cut out, while extractive industries have been welcomed with open arms. In instances where the public has provided input on major rule changes during public comment periods, Interior has consistently moved forward with proposed changes despite overwhelming public opposition.

A new Center for Western Priorities analysis of millions of public comments submitted in response to 10 major Interior Department rule changes shows the extent to which the public has opposed policies proposed by the Trump administration. Although more than 95 percent of public comments opposed each of the proposed rule changes, Interior ultimately moved forward with 8 of the 10 proposals.

The public has provided feedback to the Interior Department on dozens of proposed rule changes since 2017. To discern the public’s general sentiment expressed in the comment periods, the Center for Western Priorities (CWP) conducted an analysis of public comments submitted to Interior Department agencies during the rulemaking process for 10 major proposed policy changes under the Trump administration.

CWP assessed public sentiment in instances where more than 500 comments were posted in a proposed rule docket on Regulations.gov and agencies subsequently released a final rule or policy. Rulemakings with a greater number of public comments are typically more consequential and garner greater public involvement. A total of 10 rulemakings met these criteria and were included in the analysis. CWP downloaded the full text of all available comments (code text). A random sample of comments (n=400) for each rulemaking was analyzed. Each comment was then individually coded as “for,” “against,” or “neutral” based on the sentiment expressed towards the proposed rule. Comments that were unrelated to the rulemaking were removed from the sample.

Nearly every rulemaking docket contained only a portion of the total number of comments submitted by the public. Agencies can choose to withhold comments that are “near duplicate examples of a mass-mail campaign,” although the portion of comments withheld varied significantly. The Government Accountability Office has criticized the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for these practices. In some cases, the majority of the comments were not released by federal agencies, and were likely part of mass-mail campaigns, as described by agency guidelines. It is often grassroots conservation organizations that drive mail campaigns around environmental rules. Consequently, this analysis was only able to assess the portion of comments posted to Regulations.gov.

Two high-profile rules, in particular, would have been included in this analysis had the Interior Department not withheld the vast majority of public comments from public view. The repeal of the BLM “fracking rule” received over 100,000 comments, but only 459 of them were posted to Regulations.gov. Similarly, the repeal of a rule designed to close loopholes regarding coal royalty payments received 2,342 comments, but only 96 were posted to Regulations.gov.

Results

The analysis found that the public strongly opposed each of the 10 major policies put forward by the Trump administration’s Interior Department. In each rulemaking, more than 95 percent of public comments opposed the proposed change. Yet, in 8 of the 10 rulemakings, the Interior Department ultimately moved forward with the rule changes opposed by the vast majority of public submissions.

Detailed results of the public comment sentiment analysis can be viewed here.

In almost every instance where extractive industries expressed general support for a policy rollback, the Interior Department moved forward with rules broadly opposed by the public. Just two proposed rules were ultimately dropped or altered significantly upon final release — a proposal to require fees and permits to hold protests on the National Mall and changes to how the Interior Department would release information through the Freedom of Information Act. Although the review of national monuments was not a rulemaking, it did include a formal comment period and ended with a final recommendation that resulted in President Trump dramatically reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

This analysis shows that Interior Department agencies have ignored the wishes of the public on ten of the most impactful rule changes. Not only are these agencies withholding public comments, but in the final rules, agencies often admitted that the majority of comments submitted by the public were opposed to the changes.

Systematic changes to suppress public participation

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to assess the impact of development on the environment and communities using the best science and information available. In an effort to craft the best possible policies, NEPA directs agencies to use all means available to protect communities, future generations, the environment, and our national heritage while mitigating harms from resource development. Under the law, the general public and key stakeholders must be consulted and given opportunities to provide input through meetings and public comment periods submitted to the Federal Register.

However, the Trump administration has led a campaign to systematically limit public participation in land management planning processes and project decisions in an effort to greenlight drilling and mining on public lands.

In January 2020, the Trump administration announced a sweeping proposal to weaken NEPA, allowing agencies to ignore the impacts of major fossil fuel and infrastructure projects on lands, water, and communities. The plan would exempt many major projects from NEPA reviews and, in cases where an environmental analysis is conducted, cut down the timeframe for which projects can be assessed. It would also eliminate a requirement to study the cumulative effects of a project, including climate impacts. The move would curtail opportunities for local communities to provide input on proposed projects and create loopholes to sideline the public. The administration also proposed allowing companies to conduct their own environmental reviews, creating serious conflicts of interest.

Agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are required to conduct an environmental review for proposed development projects. When a project could have significant impacts, the BLM develops an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or Environmental Assessment (EA) for proposed development projects. These land-use planning reports are designed to bring the public to the decision-making table and to identify how projects and policies would impact communities that rely on public lands. Agencies take public views into consideration when developing a range of mitigation measures, and at times, agencies will not move forward with projects because of possible impacts on local communities. A number of changes have been implemented in recent years and allow political appointees to avoid EISs and EAs for proposals, shielding policy changes from public scrutiny.

Eroding NEPA

In 2017, then-Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued a secretarial order instructing the department and its agencies to “streamline” the implementation of NEPA. The order established guidelines for how Interior agencies would assess proposed projects through a number of significant changes.

Under NEPA, agencies are able to bypass preparing an EIS or EA for certain actions that do not have a significant environmental impact. These “categorical exclusions” generally include internal administrative actions or small-scale development projects. Bernhardt’s order required land managers to expand or establish additional categorical exclusions, allowing more development projects to circumvent the NEPA planning process.

Bears Ears National Monument. 99 percent of public comments opposed the Trump administration's review of national monuments. (EcoFlight)

Political officials at the Interior Department also directed the Bureau of Land Management, the agency charged with overseeing oil and gas development on public lands, to expedite oil and gas drilling projects by changing how NEPA assessments are used. A 2018 memo directed the BLM to determine if the agency can rely on past EAs and EISs when assessing the impacts of future projects, and when that is not possible, rely on newly expanded categorical exclusions. The U.S. Forest Service also introduced major changes to how NEPA would be implemented, cutting out the use of environmental assessments and public review periods.

The Interior Department also established page limits and timelines for preparing environmental impact documents and instructed bureaus to recommend other actions to streamline NEPA. These timelines can prevent land managers from having the opportunity to make changes to proposed rules based on feedback during public involvement periods.

Oil and Gas Leasing Rollbacks

Oil and gas leasing and development on public lands can have significant impacts on ecosystems, protected parks, local communities, and the climate. To shield the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda from public scrutiny, political appointees at the Interior Department made significant changes to the Bureau of Land Management’s oil and gas leasing process.

The BLM holds quarterly oil and gas lease sales in each of its regions in the West. Under NEPA, the BLM is required to involve the public in the leasing process, but the administration’s rollbacks have made public participation much more difficult.

99 percent of public comments opposed the Interior Department rollback of the methane capture rule. (NDDEQ)

Under the Obama administration, the BLM crafted Master Leasing Plans (MLPs) which set guidelines for where oil and gas development could take place after extensive engagement with a variety of stakeholders, including the public, the energy industry, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and local Western communities. The new Trump administration rollbacks eliminated MLPs and instructed BLM offices to rely on past Resource Management Plans, including some plans that are decades old, when assessing oil and gas development. Under Secretary Bernhardt’s guidelines, BLM field offices were ordered to avoid triggering new NEPA environmental reviews and rely on past analyses, consequently avoiding public review periods. This reliance on past environmental analyses has not held up in court, and the BLM has been forced to reanalyze oil and gas leases sold in recent years.

Additional Trump administration reforms allowed BLM offices to make public comment forums optional by eliminating a mandatory 30-day comment period when oil and gas parcels are announced for each quarterly oil and gas lease sale. This “scoping period” was commonplace under past administrations, but is routinely passed over under the Trump administration. When lease sales move forward, the agency shortened the period of time when the public can protest proposed parcels in a lease sale from 30 days to 10 days. The administration also eliminated the BLM “Planning 2.0” rule that aimed to modernize the oil and gas leasing system and required greater engagement with the public and stakeholders when developing lands for oil and gas.

Eliminating Public Advisory Committees

For decades, the Interior Department has relied on advisory committees, comprised of members of the public, to guide the agency’s land management goals. In May of 2017, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced he would suspend more than 200 Interior advisory committees to review their purpose. Included in the review were Resource Advisory Councils (RACs), which help instruct and inform the BLM’s management actions. The BLM had created dozens of RACs in states across the West. Yet, the Trump administration initially suspended 37 RACs, only to later re-establish 30 of them with politically-driven mandates to identify “additional steps to enhance exploration and development of Federal onshore oil and gas resources and Federal solid mineral resources.” Of the 30 reinstated RACs, 16 have not met due to vacancies. Another federally chartered board, the National Park System Advisory Board, filled with members of the public and former park service officials, dissolved after the majority of its members quit due to Zinke’s failure to hold a single meeting. Following the resignations, Zinke filled the board with business and development executives.

Northern California District Resource Advisory Council (Bureau of Land Management)

In addition to undermining committees representing the public interest, former Interior Secretary Zinke created at least three advisory committees that were stacked with industry representatives and private interests. These include the Royalty Policy Committee (which advised Interior to cut oil and gas royalty rates), the International Wildlife Conservation Council (that recommended lifting bans on importing trophy animals from Africa), the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee (that recommended privatizing campground services and allowing e-bikes on non-motorized trails). All three of these groups have since been disbanded or partially disbanded following legal challenges. A judge barred Interior from acting on recommendations from the Royalty Policy Committee, putting guidance from other committees on shaky legal grounds.

Fighting Transparency

Under America’s foundational transparency law, the Freedom of Information Act, the public and the press are allowed to seek information and documents from the Interior Department and its agencies. Politically-motivated efforts to undermine the law have plagued Interior in the last three years. In an effort to prevent information from being released to the public, the Interior Department created a policy that allowed political appointees to review and block information before it was released through the Freedom of Information Act.

Interior also proposed major rule changes to how the department will handle information requests through the Freedom of Information Act with the aim of limiting requests and creating more hurdles for the public. Following significant pushback (described below), Interior removed much of the language from the final rule.

Ignoring the Wishes of the Public

In its quest to drill and mine our public lands, the Trump administration appears to have little regard for public input. Not only has the public been ignored, but political appointees running America’s land management agencies have tried to cut the public out of decision making at every turn and consolidate that power to those at the top. Managing public lands is a complex endeavor that requires input from a diverse group of public stakeholders — and when the public is cut out, it’s the oil and gas industry, corporate lobbyists, and their former associates calling the shots at the Interior Department.


Westwise

Stories about public lands and the outdoors from the Center…

Andre F. Miller

Written by

Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO @WstrnPriorities

Westwise

Westwise

Stories about public lands and the outdoors from the Center for Western Priorities

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