« Return to this article

Know the West

Agencies seek quieter public meetings


This winter, hundreds of people filed into school gymnasiums, town halls and hotel conference rooms, working up the gumption to stand in front of a crowd and speak out on the future of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

To their surprise, the stomach butterflies were for nothing. They didn't find the rows of chairs facing a panel of beleaguered bureaucrats usually present at public hearings. No one took turns with a microphone. No protesters waved placards or shouted from the back row.

Instead, "town meetings" around Utah and in cities like San Francisco, Denver and Washington, D.C., were tame. A 20-minute video introduced the Bureau of Land Management's draft management plan for the monument. After the video, bureau staffers invited participants to look at informational posters and break up into small discussion groups. If people had comments for the record, they could write them down or mail them in after the meeting.

Town meetings are being touted as the new way to reach decisions on public lands, the signs of a new era managers hope will be characterized by civil discussion rather than yelling. Officials say that by doing away with the public hearings, they may actually hear from the public - not just special-interest groups.

"We're feeling really good about it," says Grand Staircase-Escalante chief planner Jerry Meredith. "A public hearing tends to lead to a feeding frenzy of emotion. Instead of just positions, we're getting values, ideas and suggestions - stuff you can really sink your teeth into."

Liz Thomas with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is not so enthusiastic about what she calls "smiley face" planning. "It was a waste of time," she says. "There was no chance to ask questions in a public forum."

A civil approach to planning

From the time President Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996, the Bureau of Land Management knew it had a live one. Utah is one of the most politically charged states in the West, where environmentalists have battled the bureau for two decades over wilderness, and where county commissioners have bulldozed roads across public lands to express their opposition to federal control.

The monument began in an unorthodox manner; for the first time, the BLM would be in charge, instead of the National Park Service. The president ordered the agency to manage it primarily for its scientific values, a departure from the bureau's multiple-use mantra. And the whole country was watching.

"It was an opportunity to do public-land management differently," says Jerry Meredith. The bureau launched a massive planning and public-relations campaign, spending almost $2 million in 1997.

Meredith and the bureau's head planner in Washington, D.C., David Williams, held brainstorming meetings with leading planners and managers from the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies. All agreed, says Meredith, that traditional public hearings accompanying National Environmental Policy Act planning weren't very helpful.

"A lot of these processes have encouraged controversy instead of resolution," says Meredith. "How do you do planning so you really focus on issues and decisions instead of a lot of rhetoric?"

To answer that question, the Bureau pulled together 10 of the best and brightest planners and experts from federal agencies, and five state employees nominated by Gov. Michael Leavitt. The team held scoping workshops around the region and in cities such as San Francisco, Denver and Washington, D.C. Staffers attended hundreds of meetings with private groups.

The final piece of the planning puzzle was 13 town meetings around the country, which left the planners glowing.

"This is the ultimate - the best of this kind of thing that we've tried to do," says the BLM's Williams. "I think it will become a model."

The new format didn't take all the sting out of the management debate. Off-road vehicle proponents reacted angrily to the bureau's proposals to close up to 1386 miles of roads in the monument, while wilderness advocates pushed for more closed roads, more protected wildlands and fewer cows along streams.

"The exchanges were lively," says Meredith. "But we didn't need a bouncer and we didn't need an administrative law judge with a gavel and a stopwatch."

The unconvinced

Critics continue to argue that the meetings put a wet towel on public sentiment, while shielding agencies from criticism.

"They're trying to minimize the potential for any controversy whatever. They're trying to minimize the exchange of information," says Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in Salt Lake City.

In the past, SUWA and other groups have used public hearings to rally support or opposition for public lands projects. At a hearing on Utah wilderness several years ago, speakers gave up their three minutes at the microphone to the crowd, which broke into a cacophony of chanting and foot stomping (HCN, 12/25/95).

"You don't get that kind of showing when everybody is milling around the room and nobody's allowed to say what they think," says McIntosh.

Also missing is a chance for people to speak their minds in public, and for others to hear and react to speakers, says University of Utah associate law professor Bob Adler.

"What (planners) are seeking is more interaction between individual members of the public and individual bureaucrats. There's a value in that," he says. "But they shouldn't do it at the expense of an opportunity for members of the public to interact with one another and to hear each other."

Ideally, agencies would set up both an informational town meeting and provide a forum for public comment, he says. That may not be possible, but given the choice between the two, Adler would take the old-time public hearing.

"I think it would be a blow to democracy if this in fact was the end of the public hearing as we know it," he says.

You can ...

* Send your comments on the Draft Management Plan by Feb. 12 to Pete Wilkins, Team Leader, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, 337 South Main St., Suite 010, Cedar City, UT 84720 (435/865-5100);

* find the plan on the Web at http://www.ut.blm.gov/monument/;

* call the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance at 801/486-3161.