When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke this month renewed the charters governing 21 Bureau of Land Management resource advisory councils, many members were relieved, even excited, that the panels could finally get back to work after more than a year.
The Interior Department early last year temporarily suspended BLM’s 30-plus RACs, and dozens of other Interior advisory panels, while it conducted a national review of the "charter and charge" of each panel to ensure they are fulfilling their intended mission (Greenwire, May 5, 2017).
But as the members of the 21 BLM panels that advise the agency on the management of millions of federal acres from Alaska to Arizona began to review the renewed charters signed by Zinke on March 5, the initial relief turned to concern.
The charters now direct each RAC to "provide recommendations for implementation" of various executive orders and secretarial orders, including President Trump’s order last year directing Interior and other agencies to implement "reform initiatives" to reduce regulatory "burdens."
Scott Braden, wilderness and public lands advocate for Conservation Colorado and a member of the Rocky Mountain RAC, was stunned.
"At first we were like, ‘Oh, this is very good, we’ve been rechartered,’" Braden said. "But when reading the fine print, we realized we were being directed to do something new and troubling."
Specifically, the new charters direct the RACs to identify "regulations for repeal, replacement, or modification," especially those that "eliminate jobs or inhibit job creation," or that are "outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective," or that "impose costs that exceed benefits."
Another section in the new charters deals with Secretarial Order 3354, issued in July, which among other things instructs BLM to streamline the oil and gas permitting process. The new charters direct the RACs to identify "additional steps to enhance exploration and development of Federal onshore oil and gas resources and Federal solid mineral resources."
The RACs are to provide recommendations "developing an effective strategy to address permitting applications efficiently and effectively as well as develop clear actionable goals for reducing the permit processing time."
Another section directs the RACs to help BLM "aggressively address wildland fires on public lands." The new charters also include a provision on the "ethics responsibilities" of members, forbidding any advisory council member, or any council subcommittee member, from participating in discussions or votes "in which the member or the entity the member represents has a direct financial interest."
But most of the revisions focus on the administration’s agenda, including Secretarial Order 3347, which is designed to enhance conservation and recreation, and Secretarial Order 3356, which directs greater coordination with states, tribes and territories on outdoor recreation.
"All current and future Executive Orders, Secretary’s Orders, and Secretarial memos should be included for discussion and recommendation as they are released," the charters say.
Braden said RACs historically have "done incredibly broad things, advising BLM on land management and approving fee proposals."
"To have the charter injected with highly controversial Trump administration priorities, telling us instead of representing our communities … we need to help implement the priorities of this administration, which in many cases run counter to the communities covered within the RAC, is something we are very concerned about," he said.
RAC members in Arizona, California and Oregon said they share Braden’s concerns.
"I have not seen in my 16 years of experience working with RACs the inclusion of the types of work areas that this change in the charter represents," said Dan Morse, conservation director with the Oregon Natural Desert Association and a member of the Southeast Oregon RAC.
Morse and others said they were notified of the renewed charters by email, and were not consulted about the changes.
They say they fear that the volunteer panels are being used as political pawns.
"I have always viewed RACs as being comprised of members of varying backgrounds, and RACs as a body being somewhat non-political," Morse said. "And this change in the charter gives the RACs a set of work that has a bias."
BLM representatives did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
A BLM official who asked not to be identified confirmed that all 21 RAC charters were changed to include the new language focusing on implementation of the presidential and secretarial orders.
The BLM official said the agency routinely changes requirements in RAC charters, which are renewed about every two years. The official also noted that Trump, Zinke and BLM’s leadership have all been upfront publicly about the administration’s goals, including promoting fossil fuels and other domestic energy production on federal lands.
The official said the renewed charters do not limit the RACs to addressing the Trump administration orders, and that BLM leadership can bring any issue to the panels for consideration.
‘Narrowing the focus’
But various RAC members told E&E News they are troubled by the language in the renewed charters.
The agency’s 30 RACs, whose members are appointed by the Interior secretary on staggered three-year terms, are designed to help guide BLM administrators on a wide variety of issues involving major projects such as multistate transmission lines and energy projects.
The advisory panels typically have 10 to 15 members, who are supposed to represent a cross-section of local residents, state government agencies, industry and conservation leaders. They evaluate and submit recommendations on "land use planning, fire management, off-highway vehicle use, recreation, oil and gas exploration, noxious weed management, grazing issues, wild horse and burro herd management issues," and other topics, according to BLM.
Recommendations from the RACs, established by Interior in 1995 during the Clinton administration, are supposed to carry significant weight with BLM leaders.
Mike Quigley, director of the Wilderness Society’s Arizona office and a member of BLM’s Arizona RAC, said he fears Interior wants to constrict the panels to the administration’s priorities.
By "narrowing the focus" of the RACs to implementing the controversial policies on regulations and oil and gas development on public lands, the concern is that other important issues in each state will be ignored. That, in turn, would reduce the "diverse opinions" of the "broad stakeholders" on each RAC, Quigley said.
"Memorializing secretarial orders into the charters," he said, gives these orders "undue weight for the RAC."
"To narrow the focus, it almost sounds like the new charter is not so much valuing the diverse input, but [rather] putting us in a position of implementing an agenda rather than providing solid advice," he said.
The future of each RAC is not clear. Braden said his three-year term on the Rocky Mountain RAC expires this month, and he has not been contacted about renewal. Morse said BLM told the members of his Southeast Oregon RAC they may not meet again this calendar year due to expiring membership and the administration’s slow pace replacing members or renewing three-year terms.
It’s also not clear whether similar provisions will be added to the charters of the roughly 17 other BLM RACs and advisory panels, which include the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board and the North Slope Science Initiative Science Technical Advisory Panel in Alaska.
But the recent changes concern Mariana Maguire, the Conservation Lands Foundation’s associate Southern California director and a member of BLM’s California Desert District Advisory Council.
The California Desert DAC’s charter is up for renewal in July.
"I absolutely share concerns about this, as Dan [Morse] and other RAC members do," Maguire, who is a "public-at-large" representative on the panel, said in an email. "This is the administration asking us to serve its interests, not those of the stakeholders we are appointed to represent."
If similar changes are added to the California Desert DAC, she said, she hopes Interior will at least consult the panel.
"What if the public-at-large, which I represent, or any given stakeholder represented by my fellow DAC members, do not want to see more oil and gas development? Where does that leave their voice in this process?" she asked.
"It sounds like the administration has made the decision to favor oil and gas production on public lands over all else and is now looking for the validation to advance those decisions," she added. "If I am to do my job right as a public servant I must honor the public’s voice, and the administration should not be telling me which opinions to favor."