President Donald Trump's administration has signaled it wants local residents to have more say in decisions about public lands in their backyard.
But earlier this month the Interior Department canceled upcoming meetings of local citizen groups that give input to the Bureau of Land Management on how to manage public lands.
Most people have never heard of these groups because much of their work is done behind the scenes. They’re called Regional Advisory Councils — or RACS.
The volunteer groups meet a few times a year to discuss how the BLM manages public lands, and they then make recommendations to the agency about best practices. They provide input on everything from how to deal with invasive weeds on rangeland to how to manage overpopulated wild horses to how much the BLM should charge rafters to float Hell’s Canyon.
The RACS are made up of people who are invested in public lands, including ranchers, environmentalists, tribal leaders and county administrators.
“The RACS probably are the best thing that the government has ever done,” said Terry Drever-Gee, who represents mining interests on the John Day-Snake River RAC.
Drever-Gee has been on the RAC since its inception in 1996 and says it’s a vital opportunity for diverse interests to discuss land management.
“I was pretty staunch conservative and 'everybody is against us,'” said Drever-Gee, who lives in Baker City. “I would sit and listen, and as I would listen, I would go, 'They want exactly the same thing that we want.'”
For many in rural Oregon, the move is puzzling from an administration that has signaled it wants local residents to have greater say in how public lands are managed.
“It’s definitely a move that’s pretty contrary to this whole rhetoric of increasing accountability and transparency and minimizing government regulation for the benefit of the people,” said Erica Maltz, who represents the Burns Paiute Tribe on the John Day-Snake River RAC. “This is one of few forums where the people get to say —in a formal way — what the people think.”
Dozens of RAC members sent a letter to Zinke last week criticizing the suspension and saying that this is preventing important work from happening over summer.
But other RAC members were less concerned. They said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has a right to shake things up.
“It’s not a big deal if there’s a two-month delay. Right now people are waiting to see what’s going to come from Zinke,” said David Schott, president of Forestglen Lumber Co. in Medford and chair of the Southwest Oregon RAC. “I think BLM really strongly supportive of the committee. I think they like the feedback.”
Schott said that he appreciates the cross-section of community members represented in the group. But he also said that his RAC doesn’t have a solid direction: The group has been reactive to concerns brought forth by the BLM rather than proactive about suggesting management direction.
The suspension of these groups means that the upcoming summer meetings are canceled — that's one of typically four meetings of these groups each year.
“I think the public ought to know that one of their key mechanisms for having relatively direct communication with federal land managers is at risk here. Or at least a question,” said Randy Jones, who works for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality and serves as the chair for the John Day-Snake River RAC.
The John-Day Snake River RAC was in the process of making recommendations for boater fee structures on the lower Deschutes and Snake rivers in Hell’s Canyon. Members were also planning to review a recent Forest Service management plan at their May meeting, which had been scheduled for this week. Consequently, the agencies may move forward without the input of the citizen group.
“We’re not going to have the opportunity to engage in the review of those issues,” Jones said. “Effectively the suspension does eliminate representation.”
The six Oregon and three Washington RACs are among 38 similar groups nationwide. Each group has a formal charter, and members are appointed locally and then approved by the Interior Department in Washington D.C.
In a statement, the Interior Department said that the suspension would allow it to review the charters and missions of the groups, “to maximize feedback from these boards and ensure their compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act and the President’s recent executive orders.” The department gave no indication whether the RACs might proceed as usual in the fall.
Oregon's two U.S. senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, issued a joint statement Friday lambasting the suspension of the RACs.
“We are very concerned about this news and would like an answer as to why the RAC meetings were postponed during the BLM’s review of all advisory boards and committees,” the two Democrats wrote. “It is critical that local voices, including RACs, have the opportunity to provide input and take part in the process at all times, not just when those local voices align with the Administration or a large special interest.”
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., was asked about the future of RACs at recent town hall meetings in eastern Oregon. A spokesman for Walden said the congressman understands the important role resource advisory councils play in Oregon’s rural communities, Walden spokesman Justin Discigil said in an email to OPB.
"The Interior Department’s review is set to be complete by September after a one meeting hiatus for the councils," Discigil wrote. "Greg looks forward to working with Secretary Zinke and his team at the Interior Department to improve the councils, and strengthen local input in federal land management decisions."
Jim Bishop, who serves on the Southeast Oregon RAC, told OPB his group was disturbed by the suspension.
“We got really mad really fast,” said Bishop, who is a retired hospital administrator in Burns and an at-large member of the RAC. “There really are a wide number of people representing a wide number of interests on that RAC. Even though we may disagree with someone’s ideas, we have a tremendous amount of respect for each other, and the process.”
Jes Burns of EarthFix contributed to this report.