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for people who care about the West

Writing a comment letter? Better make it good

Agencies say mass e-mails and form letters don’t mean much

 

If you’re a concerned citizen who likes to toss in your two cents about the federal government’s plans for the public lands, a form-letter e-mail — and even a pre-printed postcard and a 23 cent stamp — may not go as far as they used to.

Take the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Rawlins, Wyo., field office, which is updating its 15-year-old blueprint for managing oil and gas drilling, off-road vehicle use, and wildlife on 4.6 million acres. The proposed resource management plan will allow 8,822 new oil and gas wells — more than six times the number allowed under the existing plan. In December, the agency released a draft environmental impact statement and asked for public comment. When the comment period ended on March 18, the BLM had received some 65,000 responses. Most were e-mails and pre-printed postcards put together by the Wyoming Outdoor Council and other local environmental groups, supporting a less-aggressive development alternative.

But the BLM says they may not mean much. "We don’t count votes. We don’t really give any more weight to an issue raised 50,000 times than we do to an issue raised once," says John Spehar, the BLM project leader. "People can’t expect to just send in a postcard without reading the (environmental impact statement) and somehow influence the decision."

It was by no means the first time that the BLM has downplayed the significance of form comments. Last August, the BLM’s Grand Junction, Colo., district office, received 8,888 comments on a proposal to sell oil and gas leases in the South Shale Ridge citizen-proposed wilderness. The vast majority of those were sent to the BLM through a Wilderness Society Web site. BLM District Manager Catherine Robertson allegedly described the response as "a flood of spam." (Robertson declined to comment on the statement.)

The issue isn’t whether comments arrive via e-mail, or on postcards, but whether they are "substantive" — meaning that the agency must address them under the National Environmental Policy Act. While many conservation organizers admit that the definition of "substantive" has always been problematic, the BLM’s new Land Use Planning Handbook, released this March, takes a hard line, asserting that the agency is not required to respond to "opinions, assertions, and unsubstantiated claims."

Bruce Pendery, an attorney for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, says that new tack is worrying: "They will categorize anything they don’t really want to deal with as an opinion. So if you don’t state something in some bald, factual, bland kind of way, you open yourself up to them saying, ‘Well, that’s your opinion, and we don’t respond to opinions.’ "

According to the new planning handbook, "substantive comments are those that reveal new information, missing information, or flawed analysis that would substantially change conclusions." That’s a narrower definition than previously existed — but it also goads citizens to write comments that are more helpful to the BLM.

"It is definitely something we’ve been focusing on: quality comments, rather than volume," says Tova Woyciechowicz, the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s community organizer. WOC and other groups frequently remind their members to elaborate on the cookie-cutter sample letters, and to cite specific sections and page numbers in their responses.

Some BLM field offices have themselves provided specific guidelines for comment writers. Gene Drais, the project manager for the BLM’s Ely, Nev., resource management plan revision, which will be released this summer, says the draft plan will include a "Dear Reader" letter with tips to help readers focus their comments.

But while they acknowledge a need for in-depth comments, environmental organizers say that sheer numbers are still an important barometer of public concern. The Clinton-era roadless area conservation rule, for example, garnered some 1.6 million public comments, the vast majority of which were in favor of roadless-area protection. Although more than a million responses were form letters, the Clinton administration and the Forest Service widely advertised that response as justification for adopting the rule.

Conservation groups are trying to play a similar card in their efforts to keep oil and gas drilling off the Roan Plateau, another citizen-proposed wilderness in western Colorado: They rallied many of the almost 75,000 comments the BLM received on that plan. And environmental groups are gearing up to organize public comment on 23 draft resource management plans that the BLM will release in eight states around the West in the next 12 months.

The bottom line, say organizers, is that sending in something is always better than sending in nothing. "We always want to see as many comments as possible," says Mark Schofield, a community organizer for Western Colorado Congress. "It’s key that decision makers know the numbers of people out there (with the) commitment to take some kind of action to make their voice heard."

The author is HCN associate editor.