Community perspective

Our public input process is broken

Have you been to a public meeting held by federal land managers in Fairbanks? Or submitted written comments? What did you think of the process? Did it seem to you that your input was valued and would be meaningfully considered when making these decisions about public resources? Or did it seem to you that the agencies were going through the motions — collecting public input and filing it away?

In preparing to write this, I looked up the text of National Environmental Protection Act, which set up the environmental impact statements process. NEPA states that, “Congress recognizes that each person should enjoy a healthful environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.” Regulations for the EIS process say, “Federal agencies shall to the fullest extent possible: ... (d) Encourage and facilitate public involvement in decisions which affect the quality of the human environment.”

I have been to meetings and read large chunks of the Bureau of Land Management EIS for the proposed Ambler road, for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil leasing and for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska management plan. I haven’t seen the EIS for the most recent Pebble Mine plan, nor the Donlin Mine project, and I’m sure there are more that I don’t know about. As a biologist with expertise in the Arctic, I focus on the projects in Northern Alaska, because that is where I am most likely to be able to make “substantive” comments on the EIS.

The current emphasis on requesting “substantive” public input is actually something new. Federal agencies now tell the public that they only want to receive factual corrections, additions, or description of omissions. They don’t want to hear people’s opinions.

What we see happening now in the public input process is so different from NEPA’s goals. Only the input from experts is being taken seriously and only if it is “substantive.” In most cases, I find the science included in an EIS is accurate and thorough. The documents are over 1,000 pages, with lots of tables, figures and references. The agencies usually don’t have the staff to produce these documents, so they hire consulting companies with scientific expertise to fill in the data.

The general public is being intimidated from contributing. How are they supposed to digest reams of scientific studies and provide “substantive” comments? Yet their voices are the most important, and their inclusion is mandated by NEPA. The input from the public on how they view these development projects, based on their values, their relationship with the environment, and their experience as residents of the area are exactly what decision-makers in Washington, D.C. need to know. The science cannot make a decision on any of these projects. It can only provide data. People and their values are what make the decision. And if the public’s values are not included as part of the EIS, then the government does not have the necessary information on which to base a decision.

An especially poor example of the public input process was the meeting held in Fairbanks on the Arctic refuge leasing. At this meeting, no public comments were accepted, except those spoken individually to a sitting court recorder, who transcribed them and entered them in the computer files. It was an arrogant approach by BLM, assuming its role was to educate the public on the science. People came from a long way, from remote villages, spending their money and time to try to get their voices heard in this impersonal process. They wanted to talk to the decision-makers, to tell them of their life experiences on the land, and to try to influence the final decision. In the end they were allowed to speak publicly but only because they insisted.

This meeting was presided over by a somewhat bored-looking Joe Balash. He was head of BLM at the time but quit soon after and joined a foreign oil company linked to a different company which recently leased almost a million acres of BLM land in the NPR-A.

Martha Raynolds is an Arctic plant ecologist. She lives in Fairbanks.

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