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Posted 2/23/10

The BLM has been working on the plan since fall 2008, and a draft of the plan is scheduled to be released in early 2011.

For the past year or so, the BLM has been working with cooperating agencies from the region, entities that include the …

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Despite criticism, BLM sticks by closed meetingsThe future of the Big Horn Basin's public lands is being hashed out behind closed doors, and that's not sitting well with a lot of folks.The federal Bureau of Land Management is in the process of drafting a new resource management plan for all of the federal lands in the Big Horn Basin. The document will lay out what can and can't be done on the 3.2 million acres of public land, from cattle grazing to four-wheeling to oil drilling. The plan is expected to be in place for the next 15 to 20 years.

The BLM has been working on the plan since fall 2008, and a draft of the plan is scheduled to be released in early 2011.

For the past year or so, the BLM has been working with cooperating agencies from the region, entities that include the Basin's county commissions, conservation districts and representatives from various federal and state agencies, to help put together a draft plan.

Those cooperator meetings — such as those last week — have been closed to the public despite pressure from commissioners, conservation districts and environmental groups to open them up.

“There are appropriate times for government-to-government communication,” said state BLM spokeswoman Mary Wilson last week. “In the past, we have looked at (Resource Management Plan cooperator meetings) as one of those.”

Wilson said the BLM may open those meetings on future plans, but said it doesn't make sense for the agency to “change horses midstream” and open the cooperator meetings now mid-way through the process.

A different state BLM spokeswoman told the Tribune last July that the agency was prohibited by its regulations from opening the meetings to the public. But this month, Wilson said that wasn't accurate.

Wilson said the BLM believes that some cooperators want the meetings closed.

“We've heard from many cooperators that that is their preference,” she said.

However, that's apparently not the case in the Big Horn Basin.

Park County Commission Chairman Jill Shockley Siggins said the Basin's county commissions were unanimous in asking — in vain — for the meetings to be made public.

“We tried,” said Commissioner Dave Burke.

Added Siggins, “We tried hard.”

The bureau contends that a closed-door meeting allows for frank discussion and “creates that atmosphere of free exchange, non-attribution,” said Wilson.

Siggins, however, has noted that local governments — like commissioners — are used to holding their meetings in the open.

“It's incredibly cynical that they (BLM officials) think the cooperators would be saying different things if the meetings were open,” said Hilary Eisen, a public lands advocate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition's Cody office. Having the meetings closed, Eisen said, “does create mistrust when there shouldn't necessarily be any mistrust.”

“People are not going to know how these decisions are arrived at,” she said, adding, “It (the management plan) is going to come out of left field.”

BLM officials disagree.

“We certainly provide ample and voluminous opportunity for public input,” said Wilson. She said the bureau works “very diligently” to promote public involvement, noting the public scoping process and the periodic update meetings held throughout the process.

She also said the BLM has heard the call for more information and is working on hosting more public events.

In the meantime, “the public is represented at the table by their cooperating agencies,” Wilson said. If people have ideas, she said, they can take them to their commissioners, for example.

But at a meeting at Northwest College last month, Nathan Maxon of the Wyoming Outdoors Council's Lander office said the private meetings have made it hard to participate effectively.

“It's really hard to be effective and have your voice heard when you can't be in any of the meetings,” Maxon said.

He said county commissions and other entities funded by tax dollars from developers tend to be pro-development.

“If nobody (else) speaks up and nobody says anything, the county commissioners and others may have the most influence in the process,” he said.

For entirely different reasons, commissions and conservation districts agree that the public is best-served by open meetings.

Steve Jones, resource coordinator of the Meeteetse Conservation District, said his district believes the public is not getting good insight into the process.

“It's very difficult for the local governments to interact with the public at this time with the closed doors,” said Jones.

The conversations and ideas shared in the meetings cannot be taken from the room.

A provision in the memorandum of understanding between the BLM and the cooperating agencies states that “any recipient of proprietary and/or pre-decisional information agrees not to disclose, transmit or otherwise divulge this information without prior approval from the releasing party. Any breach of this provision may result in termination of this (memorandum).”

“They can talk in generalities, certainly,” said Wilson, but specifics are frowned upon. The BLM doesn't want to hear a cooperator saying, for example, “This Area of Critical Environmental Concern is going to be turned into an (Off Highway Vehicle) park,” for two reasons, said Wilson.

“First of all, that decision hasn't been made, and that body (of cooperating agencies) doesn't make that decision,” Wilson said. Ultimately, she said, the BLM does.

Wilson also said the bureau worries that, if the public were allowed in, the bureau would spend more time fighting disinformation than spreading accurate information.

It would lend itself to a situation where the public might “come in for a half a snippet of a conversation” and misunderstand what's going on, she said.

Jones said the Meeteetse Conservation District understands the concern about ideas under discussion being misconstrued into “rumored fact.”

“That being said, there are plenty of public forums to correct that kind of thing if it happens,” Jones said.

Eisen said the idea that the public wouldn't understand is “slightly insulting.”

The closed-lip policy has frustrated the Basin's commissions.

“We can't go out and talk, because it's all predecisional information,” complained Siggins at a meeting with Big Horn Basin legislators and commissioners last month.

She described the plan in negative — but non-specific — terms.

“I don't think the people in this community (are) going to be able to take what's coming,” Siggins said, referring to possible coming restrictions on resource development.

The lack of information could be creating its own perception problems. Maxon said he visited with a worker in the bentonite industry who had heard “that this plan was going to shut them down.”

Jones, the commissioners, and Eisen all pointed to the Shoshone National Forest's ongoing forest plan revision meetings as an example of how cooperator meetings should be.

Anyone from the public could silently observe those discussions. After the meeting was over, a half-an-hour or so was typically set aside for questions and comments from the public.

“We never even considered having closed meetings,” said Shoshone spokeswoman Susie Douglas. “It just wasn't something we thought was a good idea.”

On average, the meetings were attended by fewer than a half-dozen citizens, with most being from environmental organizations, Douglas said.

She said there had not been any problems with having the cooperators' meeting open to the public.

“There hasn't been some big confusion about ‘Oh my God, I heard this thing at the planning meeting and this is what they're going to do,'” said Eisen.

Douglas noted that the BLM and the Forest Service are guided by different federal rules.

The BLM's draft resource management plan for the Big Horn Basin is scheduled for a release in early 2011 and Wilson said the public will again have the opportunity submit input at that time.

“The point of the draft is to take those public comments,” said Wilson, adding, “That's why we call it a draft and a not a final.”