"Bulk Comment" Ban in BLM Future?
This discussion piece is provided to inform you about a conversation in land management practices that you may not be aware of. Many people know about "comment letters," on proposed roundups etc. For several years there has been discussion internally about "how to handle" what is referenced as "bulk comments" received from the public. Recently an action was proposed on public land where the "bulk comment" was banned.
What is a bulk comment?
Bulk comments are comments sent in a "click and send," or copied and pasted, into an individual email account off an orgs website. These also include adding your name to an orgs letter.
The public often uses these letters to express an agreement with a statement made in process by an organization. Most Americans do not have time to research, look for experts in a field, new techniques.
Sometimes bulk comments are appropriate in process, sometimes they are not.
An example of appropriate bulk comments are those made to your representatives in Congress; these are your representatives representing your local voice. Pressure on legislators through the use of information found in "bulk comments," like the shrinking of a National Monument, is more than simply an appropriate action, it's vital.
On an EA for a roundup? no. A support letter the org uses if it litigates the roundup? yes. A roundup EA analyzes the impact of removing wild horses, it does not analyze management. Those documents are supposed to come before a roundup EA. In many instances the underlying frame was not fully built according to policy. It is a long standing deficit. In wild horse advocacy we often see a deep misunderstand to what comments are appropriate at which part of process. That however, is another topic.
The purpose of comments on an action is to point out harms, new info and failures in analysis or process.
How are these letters used?
These letters have several purposes for the organizations that create them. It demonstrates their position has public support. Some use them simply to build larger mailing lists or for press releases. Some use them if an issue has to go into a courtroom to demonstrate that the position the org has taken is of "public interest."
Public interest is a key component of any legal argument for decisions made in land management; it's public land. However the validity of a legal argument is not "made or broken" based on the number of signees on a petition, it simply gives the person creating the argument an additional reason to bring it into the judiciary.
Banning Bulk Comments?
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said on August 9th the department would not accept bulk comments on a proposal to create two national monuments in Kentucky. This ban would stand for both mailed in letters or those received electronically.
This statement from Zinke came after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) received 223,000 comments on proposed changes to sage grouse plans. BLM has said only about 490 of them are unique.
In conversations Wild Horse Education has had with federal land managers they have wanted to ban all forms of bulk commenting for a long time. In 2015 BLM personnel in Nevada complained that each comment had to be read to look for any unique aspect, then filed away. They found bulk comments "annoying" and time wasting.
We may see the BLM ban all bulk comments soon. We do know that is one of the topics on this political table. This debate in the "wild horse arena" is making the "larger conversation" in how BLM allows public input in part because of the large number of bulk comments over the experiments on spaying.
Discounting the average American that has little time, but makes an effort to be heard, is simply wrong.
If the issue is funding for personnel? that problem could be solved by stopping all agency personnel from the top to the bottom from using tax payer funding to stay in the best hotels, fly in the best seat and even hang the most expensive door on an office.
At WHE we have told you to contact your representatives about a number of matters, not a "bulk comment." In some instances your reps have responded that the matter is not occurring in their jurisdiction, an absurd response from a Congressman sitting in DC creating federal law. Your rep is your rep on all federal issues, including public lands.
NEPA, the place for substantive public process, is also under attack (learn more here).
Massive operations where even local voices that represent wild horses are being left out of process are happening. (one example here).
We are all aware that the report to Congress by the Department of Interior on National Monuments is now under scrutiny. The report not only contained fabricated information, it was intentional.
The same has happened with the BLM report to Congress on wild horses. However, there is a real disconnect in Congress, media and the public when it comes to wild horses. Wild horses are all about public land management and do not exist in a bubble trapped in an old western movie; allowing mythology to run a wild horse program is the same as allowing a climate change denier to steer policy on climate change.
Any voice that does not represent an "industry" is minimized.
Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council and of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association emailed this comment to Scott Streater of E&E, "These comment periods are not a vote, no matter how badly activists groups would like them to be." He went on to state; "Public comment is critical, but substantive comments from impacted stakeholders must be respected."
He is correct that these comment periods are not a vote. Yet please recognize when an org (the Public Lands Council is not a government arm, no matter what the name sounds like. This org is a "public lands for private profit" group) that uses the phrase "all stakeholders" to simply reference a profit driven interest as he minimizes advocates (when you see the word "activist" it is usually used to create a negative image). He is bastardizing law in it's most basic premise; a stakeholder is also the environmentalist.
Appropriate land management can only work if three things occur; all local stakeholders are in the room (including pro wild horse interests), those interests prepare intelligent and accurate data for debate, a recognition that planning includes the interests of all Americans, equally. We are talking about public land, not adding a room to a local schoolhouse.
What you can do
The vote happens when YOU elect an administration that appoints land management personnel (Zinke was appointed as the Secretary of Interior. Brian Steed, former chief of staff for Chris Stewart (R-UT), was appointed as the associate director of BLM). The vote happens when YOU elect a member of Congress that will create and vote on law an policy.
Comment periods are a time to create a substantive, site or action specific, comment within the NEPA structure.
The orgs you trust are doing their best to create those substantive comments under a flood of projects moving forward that are creating habitat loss and impact to public lands at an unprecedented rate.
Wild Horse Education does not publish all of the comment letters we craft. In recent days we have published a few of them to use as illustrations of just how bad things are; both in actual habitat destruction and the threats to participation. One of the reasons we have not published all of the comments we submit is that there is simply no time to read all the documents, craft the comment, write an article that explains context and then try to help you use your voice correctly. Things are coming that fast and furious in public lands management.
Supporting the actions those orgs request of you is how you can influence an outcome. If an org needs you to sign a letter? do it if you understand what you are signing and why.
The bottom line is that you need to be a wary consumer. Your voice has value. Be aware of what you give your voice to. Be aware of how those you give your voice to, use that voice.
Remember your vote this fall is the best way to express that you value your voice and will spend it well.