Page 6 - June 2017
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In early May, members of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Resource Advisory Councils and Committees (RACs) received notices of cancellation for all upcoming meetings. Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke announced these citizen-based advisory boards are under review and all meetings would be suspended until at least September.
One reason given for the review by the administration is to ensure compliance with executive orders issued by President Donald Trump, one of which requires evaluation of all policies that may “potentially burden” or interfere with the activities of energy production on federal lands. The BLM oversees 38 of these committees in the West. More than 150 other public land advisory boards across the country were also put on hold. RAC members found the suspen- sion puzzling, since the administration has repeatedly expressed support for more public involvement in decisions about use of federal lands.
The announcement also came amidst Trump Administration efforts to investigate alleged violations of the Federal Antiquities Act involving national monuments established since 1996. Mr. Trump signed an executive order formally launching this initiative in April.
In Arizona, while the RAC is overseen by BLM, it is also utilized by the United States Forest Service (USFS) under the Recreation subcommittee (RecRAC). The Federal Lands Recre- ation Enhancement Act (FLREA) requires the USFS to conduct extensive public outreach any time it wants to add, change or remove a recreation fee on forest lands to determine the extent of general support for its proposals. One of the components of that outreach is input from the RecRAC. The RecRAC is made up of around 15 volunteer members from local communities around the state. These members represent varying interests, including grazing, mining and energy resources, recreation, conservation, local governments, and outfitters and guides.
In a statement, Heather Swift of the DOI said “The Secretary is committed to restoring trust in the Department’s decision-making and that begins with institutionalizing state and local input and ongoing collaboration, particularly in communities surrounding public lands.” She called the suspension “temporary” and denied any intent by the administration to eliminate public input. “It is definitely not an attempt to weaken local voices,” she said. “This administration prioritizes local communities over special interests and bureaucrats, and the review is aimed at improving the process.”
Within days, eight US Senators representing five western states sent a letter to Secretary Zinke expressing their concern about the RAC meetings suspension. “As you know,” the letter states, “public land management issues can be very contentious, particularly in the West, as agencies and stakeholders navigate projects that can impact the health of the environment and the longevity of the local economy. Balancing these interests is challenging, which is why RACs were created. By working through difficult land management issues and getting local input from the beginning, projects are more likely to succeed. Without this tool, many good land management projects would never be completed.”
The letter expressed particular concern for projects in Oregon that could lose federal fund- ing if not implemented by the end of September. “This could cause counties in Oregon to lose federal funds that could have gone to improve the health of their forests and create local jobs,” it states. Arizona’s senators were not among the letter’s signatories.
Center for Western Priorities Deputy Director Greg Zimmerman said the RAC meetings suspension “sends a clear signal that Secretary Zinke intends to make decisions behind closed doors and not through an open and transparent public process.”
In reality, RACs rarely dispute or intervene with requests made by the USFS or BLM, at least in the case of recreation fees. Most RecRACs give a rubber stamp to any fee requests put before them by land management agencies. Arizona’s RecRAC has been an exception. Its members have been more diligent about questioning agency fee requests and helped shape the changes made to the Red Rock Pass in Sedona in 2012. The USFS adjusted a number of aspects of its initial proposal, responding to feedback from the citizen advisors, in order to garner RecRAC support.
“It’s really shocking this would happen,” said Maggie Sacher by phone. Ms. Sacher has been a member of the Arizona RAC for 9 years and runs a recreation business at Vermillion Cliffs, one of the national monuments on the president’s hit list. “This hiatus is taking away a very strong voice of the people with regard to public lands planning,” she continued. “The RAC is made up of a specifically designated cross-section of people from various locations, interests and backgrounds. When we meet, we don’t always agree right away but we work on things until we come to a consensus. We represent many different aspects of the community and it’s really unfortunate the people have lost that voice.”
6 • JUNE 2017 | the NOISE arts & news |
The lack of RAC meetings could have a direct effect on the Red Rock Ranger District (RRRD) in Sedona. Toward the end of 2015, the district submitted a proposal to change some of the locations where fees are required. The proposal seeks to eliminate the two fee cor- ridors along highways 89A and 179, keeping only the developed picnic sites and trailheads in the fee system. It would also add the Dry Creek Vista/Picnic Site and Fay Canyon Vista/ Trailhead as new fee sites.
The USFS was initially scheduled to present this proposal to the Arizona RecRAC this month. Since the RAC meeting has been postponed, the agency will not be able to fulfill this part of the public outreach required by law. This effectively leaves the current fee system intact for the foreseeable future.
However, the RRRD has already completed the public comment period for the proposal. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the Western Slope No Fee Coalition re- vealed 52 comments were received by the USFS. The coalition’s analysis of the comments revealed 59% to be in opposition to the proposed fee changes.
While 11 of the comments proved to be irrelevant to the actual proposal, a few respon- dents took the time to express their dismay at the forest’s practice of using concessionaires to run USFS sites like West Fork and Crescent Moon Ranch.
From a legal standpoint, the proposed fee changes still fail to bring the Red Rock Pass sys- tem into compliance with the 2012 Mt. Lemmon decision. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision determined forest visitors could only be required to pay fees at developed sites that also have trailheads if hikers use the provided amenities.
One commenter led with the subject “Dubious Picnic Sites” and told the forest service “any ‘hiking fee’ is too much.” Self-identifying as a retiree, the commenter wrote “Please keep my trail access parking open. I am making no demands for services and would like no hassle and free access to my public lands. We don’t need to keep ‘upgrading’ these recreation areas to be a Disneyland and then price low income people out of them.”
With RAC meetings suspended, there are limited options for getting recreation fee propos- als implemented. Kitty Benzar of Western Slope explained by email that there are a “couple of sneaky ways” around the absence of RAC approval. “One is that every Forest has an ad- visory committee that helps select beneficiaries of the ‘Title 2’ money that comes in under the Secure Rural Schools Act to compensate for declining timber revenue. Last year they revised the charter of these committees to include recommendations on recreation fees, es- sentially allowing them to serve as RecRACs,” she said. “The other circumvent, which was accomplished in Colorado, is to convince the governor that the state simply doesn’t need a RecRAC and to request it be dissolved. That was done in Colorado with no public input or advance notice whatsoever. Both of these bypasses are entirely legal, which goes to show once again how bogus the ‘public participation’ requirement in FLREA actually is.”
The announcement of RAC suspensions came just days after Mr. Trump signed an execu- tive order directing the review of 26 national monuments including four in Arizona, all pro- claimed by former President Bill Clinton: Grand Canyon-Parashant, Ironwood Forest, Sonoran Desert and Vermillion Cliffs.
Ironically, the executive order expresses concern that some national monuments may have been established without proper input from relative stakeholders. It also states that monument designations may “create barriers to achieving energy independence, restrict public access to and use of Federal lands, burden State, tribal, and local governments, and otherwise curtail economic growth.”
On May 23, the administration released its 2018 budget proposal which includes $1.4 bil- lion in cuts to the Department of Interior and even deeper reductions at the Department of Agriculture, the agency that oversees the USFS. The “America First” agenda seems to be aimed at stripping environmental protections on federal lands, including encouraging drill- ing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a subject that has been rehashed repeatedly.
The proposed budget was met with shock and resistance by both public and private sec- tor agencies and businesses. It will still have to get through Congress and will likely undergo major amendment before that will be possible.
On its website, The Wilderness Society proclaimed its determination to “stop Trump’s reckless- ness,” and announced that it will take the protection of Arctic and Atlantic waters to court. “After years of neglect by the Federal government, our country’s conservation programs are in serious need of restoration. But President Trump has confirmed his intention to give them just the oppo- site,” the organization stated. “We’re in this battle for as long as it takes.”

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