The Bush administration has proposed easing environmental controls on cattle and sheep grazing on public lands, marking the latest example of politics and secrecy trumping professional judgment and transparency. An internal analysis, written by experts at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and later leaked to me and others, warned that this action would damage watersheds and wildlife, but political appointees suppressed and overrode it.
Last December, Interior Secretary Gale Norton unveiled this proposal, which would change current regulations governing livestock grazing on more than 160 million acres of western public lands administered by BLM. The administration described its decision as an effort to "improve working relationships" between the BLM and ranchers, and to "protect the health of rangelands." But in fact the proposal would repeal a number of environmental standards, delay implementing others, and through bureaucratic manipulation render most of the remaining environmental standards unenforceable.
All in all, the regulations would remove opportunities for the public (other than ranchers) to provide input into management decisions, slant environmental analyses and appeals procedures to favor ranchers over environmentalists, and make it easier for ranchers convicted of environmental crimes to obtain grazing permits. The proposal would also allow ranchers to obtain ownership of water rights, fences, wells, and pipelines on public land, thus crippling the BLM's ability to manage the land in the greater public interest.
Career BLM staffers, who know how the agency works, understand very well the ways in which the proposed amendments are designed to exclude non-ranchers from management decisions and stall implementation of environmental standards. Just three weeks before the amendments were published in the Federal Register, an "administrative review copy" of a draft environmental impact statement was circulated for comment to BLM offices around the country. Written by resource management professionals within the BLM, as opposed to Gale Norton's political appointees, the draft had devastating things to say about the proposal's likely impact. Quoting from it:
"The Proposed Action will have a slow, long-term adverse impact on wildlife and biological diversity in general."
"[It will] will further delay the grazing decision process . . . thus adversely impacting wildlife resources and biological resources in the long-term."
"[D]eletion of the requirements to consult, cooperate and coordinate with or seek review and comment from the 'interested public' . . . will further reduce the ability of environmental groups and organizations to participate in weigh in and support [sic] wildlife and special status species with regard to public land grazing issues. This should result in long-term adverse impacts to wildlife and special status species on public lands."
Such environmental impact statements are supposed to be public documents. But the agency apparently found this one far too candid and damning for taxpayers to see. So instead, the administration assembled a replacement team to produce a hurried rewrite. Following instructions, this team generated a sanitized draft environmental impact statement that the agency dutifully released for public comment on January 2, more than three weeks after the publication of the proposed regulatory amendments. By discarding its professional staff's analysis and substituting an after-the-fact statement plainly designed to rationalize the proposed amendments, the administration flouted the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates a "hard look" at the environmental consequences of such proposed actions.
Such tactics make for miserable policy. The purpose of an environmental impact statement is to force an honest assessment of what a particular initiative will likely do to the environment. The administration's whitewashed assessment is worse than no assessment at all.
Americans deserve and expect their public officials to tell them the truth, and then let the chips fall where they may. Anything less is an insult to the democratic process. In this case, the insult is twice as severe because the administration's sanitized environmental impact statement was created in service of a proposal that will severely hobble the public's ability to play a role in protecting public lands.
Joe Feller is a member scholar of the Center for Progressive Regulation and a law professor at the Arizona State University College of Law.