Interior Secretary James G. Watt has named a National Public Lands Advisory Council composed almost exclusively of oil, gas, mining and ranching interests.
At the same time, the Bureau of Land Management--which the council will advise--is pushing through regulatory changes that could sharply curtail public participation in planning for the use of more than 328 million acres of federal land.
The new 21-member advisory panel includes three members with connections to oil and gas interests, three with mining interests, seven with current or former ranching interests, two lawyers, at least one of whose firm handles corporate mining interests, and the owner of a logging company.
The panel's makeup drew immediate fire from land-planning activists, who said that it violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act's requirements of "balance" and that the bureau's way of announcing the panel "violates any spirit of openness."
A BLM news release about the council was distributed only in the West, which has most of the BLM-managed land and all of the council members--the easternmost state represented on the board is Colorado.
The release lists new member April Westbrook, of Hobbs, N.M., as a "civic leader," but does not mention that Westbrook is also a co-owner and director of the V.H. Westbrook Oil Co.; treasurer and director of TUSCO, an oil equipment company, and an officer of Badger Industries and Badger Rentals, which rent equipment for drilling sites. Similarly, Calvin Black of Blanding, Utah, was listed only as chairman of the San Juan County Commission. He is also president of Markey Mines and director of an oil company.
Tim Monroe, an aide to BLM director Robert F. Burford, defended the panel, saying the membership is representative, considering the policies it will be asked to review. "Our principal thrust will be energy development and an overall program of range management," he said. "We think we've met the criteria of balance. Just because we might talk to them about matters of land-use planning doesn't mean we have to have land-use planners on the council."
Meanwhile, citing the need to reduce the regulatory burden on the public, BLM is moving to scuttle many of the provisions intended to ensure public input on its decisions under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.
Monroe said the idea is to speed up the planning process. It takes about four years to put a land plan into effect, he said, and the administration hopes to cut that in half.
A proposed rule published in the Federal Register last November would delete most of the sections having to do with public participation and substitute less stringent requirements, in the process cutting the minimum public comment time from 90 days to 45. At another critical point in the regulations, BLM proposes replacing the word "participation" with "consultation."
The League of Women Voters wrote Burford that it was "dismayed" at the proposed changes. The league spent a year under contract to the BLM studying ways to increase public involvement in land management until the contract was canceled abruptly last May as part of Watt's drive to end "subsidies to special-interest groups."
The difference between 90 days and 45 days is insignificant in comparison with what Watt is trying to do in carrying out the law, said Lee Carpenter, a land-use specialist with the league in Washington State. "I seriously doubt that BLM wants to have the public involved in these plans."
Carpenter and the BLM agree on one point--the public participation process is time-consuming and difficult to administer. "Any agency that can get away with making decisions without going through that process can save time," she said, but she added that the time saved might be spent in the courtroom later. When public concerns are neglected, she said, "That's when we end up with multiple lawsuits."
Of even more concern to some land-use specialists is a proposed change that would permit BLM to base its decisions on land-use plans prepared as much as 13 years ago, rather than prepare new plans as the 1976 act mandates. "That will save us a lot of time right there," said Monroe, noting that the change will save BLM the trouble of duplicating data that might already have been compiled by state and other federal agencies.
But Carpenter said the change was a "real step backward" that will mean land-use decisions based on out-of-date information.
Dorothy Bradley, a member of the public lands advisory council under President Carter, also criticized the proposed changes. Bradley, a Democratic National Committeewoman from Montana and a law student here, chided Burford for not running the new regs past either her group or a new advisory council. Comments on the November proposal were due Jan. 22, before the new council was appointed.
Noting that the old council appointments were still in effect when the rules were drawn up (BLM let the council's charter lapse Jan. 1), she wrote Burford, "I find the timing of the proposed amendments unfortunate, for it appears you are bypassing the old council simply by refusing to have acknowledged its existence this past year. Yet you are ruling out thoughtful study by a new group of appointees by establishing an early . . . deadline for public comment."
A tentative meeting of the council was canceled last April, she said. Some time later, Burford asked the members to summarize their impressions of the council's activities, and that was the last the old council heard from the Interior Department.