Faced with a storm of protest over the Interior Department's push for renewable energy development on public land in California, the Bureau of Land Management has taken a novel approach to managing public comment on controversial projects: don't allow any.
That was the conclusion of members of the public who attended a pair of public meetings in California in the last week. In Ocotillo on August 25, the project at issue was the Ocotillo Express wind project, which would site 155 wind turbines on 12,500 acres of mainly public land. The 465-megawatt project has stoked controversy in western Imperial County over its likely impact on bird and bat populations, as well as on the unparalleled viewscape of the Peninsular Ranges and the health of nearby residents.
But little of that controversy was expressed at the August 25 meeting. According to coverage in the Imperial Valley Press, locals in attendance found that their opportunity to comment on the project was severely limited. There was no public comment period scheduled. In order to comment on the project, attendees had to write their thoughts on a few lines on one side of a pre-printed letter-sized form, which would likely have allowed most people only about 75 words of comment. (The form did provide an email address for those who wished to make longer comments.)
Though the meeting largely proceeded as planned, there was disgruntlement among those in attendance over the apparent squelching of spoken public input. As local environmental activist Donna Tisdale told the Imperial Valley Press,
It's like they're trying to suppress public comment. People want to speak. They want to ask questions.
The scene replayed more fractiously a few days later on August 31, at the Primm Valley Golf Club in Ivanpah Valley, a few miles from the Nevada line and 300 miles north of Ocotillo. The occasion was a scoping meeting to gather public input on the First Solar Stateline Solar Farm, a 300-megawatt photovoltaic facility on about 2,000 acres of public land adjacent to the controversial Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station. The Ivanpah Valley is remote from most places in California: aside from Las Vegas, the nearest town of any size, Barstow, is across 113 miles of desert. People traveled to the meeting from as far away as Long Beach, CA and Beatty, NV to offer their input at this meeting, but were told that as was the case in Ocotillo, there would be no opportunity for public comment at the meeting.
A scoping meeting is generally held as part of the scoping process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the federal law that regulates environmental review of potentially destructive projects. Under NEPA, the scoping process is intended to identify potential issues or alternative plans to be addressed in subsequent Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements. The whole point of a scoping meeting is to assess the wide range of potential issues a project may involve. While there is no legal requirement that an agency include public-hearing-style comment periods in a scoping meeting, such open comment meetings are generally the most efficient way of gauging public opinion on an issue, especially when the issue is controversial.
And if First Solar Stateline is a controversial project, the BLM's choice of meeting formats proved even more controversial at the Primm Golf Club. There was widespread grumbling among attendees before the meeting even started. One BLM staffer told me somewhat defensively that there was a range of formats allowable for scoping meetings. Attendees looked askance at the unusual police presence, with both BLM rangers and San Bernardino County Sheriff's deputies thick on the ground, armed with sidearms and Tasers. After a short presentation by First Solar's project lead Mike Argentine, Jeff Childers, a BLM staffer from the California Desert District office in Moreno Valley, confirmed to the roomful of people -- many of whom were attempting to ask questions -- that public comment would not be allowed other than in writing.
The room erupted despite the heavy police presence. Kevin Emmerich from the group Basin and Range Watch stood and announced his group's alternative proposal, an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) for the Ivanpah Valley. Others loudly confronted Childers on the lack of clarity in BLM communications about the meeting, the inadequacy of avenues for public comment at the meeting, and the trouble and expense to which many attendees had gone in order to attend the meeting, only to find that the BLM didn't want to hear more than about 75 words of their input, in writing.
Childers alleged that the BLM's intent was to allow more accurate responses to the public's input, but then abandoned that line of reasoning within a few sentences, suggesting that another meeting might be scheduled for verbal comments from the public. This didn't go over well among those who had traveled long distances. The meeting eventually dissolved into a few knots of people having animated discussions.
Though I did attempt to talk to BLM staff to flesh out their reasons for the shift in meeting format, they did not return my phone calls by press time.
It should be said that the scoping process is not the only opportunity for members of the public to comment on projects proposed for public lands. The Environmental Assessment and EIS processes also afford venues for comment. Still, the scoping process is an important chance for public opinion to shape a project in its very early stages. Limiting public comment to a few handwritten sentences (or to potentially longer emailed comments) unnecessarily restricts the democratic rights of people whose disabilities may interfere with writing by hand or typing, people whose written English proficiency is inadequate but who could offer substantive comments in spoken form, and people without access to the internet. In the California Desert those last two groups are heavily Latino and Native, raising troubling implications of racial discrimination.
What's more, though a public hearing style meeting is prone to people speaking long, grandstanding, and otherwise trying the patience of meeting facilitators, it's an effective way for interested people to hear the range of opinion and sentiment among others in attendance. The result is a very efficient sharing of ideas -- something made impossible if all comments are submitted in writing.
Over the last two years, desert protection activists have heard repeatedly from nervous National Park staff, BLM rangers, and other Interior Department agency staff that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has laid down the law. No Interior employee will act in opposition to public lands renewable energy development, even if opposing said development could be construed as within the person's job description: a Park Service analyst objecting to development on the boundary of a National Park, for instance.
Attendees at a BLM meeting held to discuss First Solar Stateline earlier this year were informed by staff from the Needles BLM office that an urban rooftop solar alternative had been declared "off the table" by higher-ups in Washington, DC -- an attempt, possibly illegal, to restrict the allowable content of public feedback. Clamping down on the age-old American tradition of speaking your piece at a public meeting seems cut from the same cloth as these previous initiatives.
Will this latest move to curtail public input on public lands projects become the California BLM's new way of holding scoping meetings? It's hard to say. It depends on how much push-back they get from members of the public, and perhaps from attorneys concerned over the racial or disability discrimination aspects of the new policy. In the meantime, scoping meetings have been scheduled in September for discussion of the McCoy Solar Energy Project in Riverside County, the Tylerhorse Wind Project in Kern County, and the management plan for the Amargosa River. You can exercise your rights as a US resident by attending to voice your concerns. Or trying to voice them, anyway.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He's also a co-founder of Solar Done Right and thus doesn't even try to pretend to be an impartial observer of solar development on California's wildlands. He lives in Palm Springs.