Image credit: Bob Wick
The sage grouse, an iconic bird of the western plains who relies on a healthy sagebrush ecosystem, has long been the pawn in debates between conservationists and oil and gas developers. On March 15, 2019, the final Records of Decision were published for amendments to several Bureau of Land Management (BLM) resource management plans for sage grouse conservation. Public access to web-based informational resources was limited throughout the proposed amendment life cycle (May 2018 through March 2019) for the six BLM resource management plan amendments (RMPAs) affecting sage grouse conservation efforts in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Northern California, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. Moreover, the resources that were readily available lack pertinent information to adequately explain to the public BLM’s current sage grouse conservation strategies, actions, effectiveness, or the changes in strategy, action, or anticipated effectiveness that the proposed amendments entail. BLM, along with most federal agencies, has significant room for improvement in communicating meaningful information to enable the public to fully participate in federal rulemaking as intended by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Here, we describe a few of the changes to web resources that BLM made during the proposed amendment cycle, and discuss one specific change that exemplifies pervasive inadequacies in federal agency website information practices. Those inadequacies and recommendations for improving them will be further discussed in an upcoming EDGI report.
Changes in access to resources during public processes
Our report details the BLM website changes we at the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) observed during these proposed amendments’ construction, from the days before the public comment period of draft amendments opened (May 4, 2018) to the days following the release of the proposed amendments (December 6, 2018) that initiated the public protest period, which was the last stage prior to BLM issuing Records of Decision for these plans. In the days leading up to the draft amendments and draft environmental impact statements (EIS) release that initiated the public comment period May 4 – August 2, 2018, BLM removed some of the most accessible resources geared toward the general public: the “Top 5 Things You Should Know About Greater Sage-Grouse” webpage (see report Page 1) and fact sheets about different states’ sage grouse conservation efforts. Immediately following the close of the public comment period in August, and months before the final proposed amendments and EISs were released in December, BLM removed the webpages devoted to state sage grouse conservation efforts (later restoring three of the 10 pages in December, and removing those three pages again in February 2019) (see report Pages 7-15). These changes are notable in that the pages and fact sheets removed were some of the more informative and accessible materials available through the BLM website about the sage grouse itself and sage grouse conservation efforts. Perhaps the most informative page, “Sagebrush Focal Area Withdrawal,” was first depleted of useful information in May 2018, and then the page was removed altogether in June 2018, before and during the public comment period for sage grouse RMPAs respectively (see report Page 6). Other changes we observed were more subtle, such as the deletion of the single sentence regarding the impact of oil and gas development on sage grouse habitat from BLM’s Wyoming state sage grouse efforts webpage (see report Page 15), and the alteration of a bullet point on the “Implementing the BLM’s Greater Sage-Grouse Plans” webpage describing BLM management approaches from “protecting intact habitat by capping disturbances to these lands and establishing buffers around the birds’ breeding grounds” to “protecting intact habitat by managing disturbances to these lands” (see report Page 5).
A poignant example of changes observed and pervasive problems in BLM sage grouse resources
The “Sagebrush Focal Area Withdrawal” webpage (see report Page 6) illustrates both a representative change in public access to information that occurred during the sage grouse RMPA lifecycle, and the shortcomings of BLM’s web information more broadly.
As part of the landmark federal, state, and private landowner integrated conservation efforts culminating in the 2015 management plans, BLM recommended that approximately 10 million acres of federal land be withdrawn from mineral claims. The purpose of the proposed withdrawal was to protect the most crucial habitat for the survival of the sage grouse species, sites with high quality sagebrush and high breeding grounds density known as Sagebrush Focal Areas. Specifically, the withdrawals were proposed in order to utilize federal regulatory mechanisms to minimize habitat disturbance, as noted in the U.S. Forest Service fact sheet about the proposed withdrawal, which is now one of the only live documents on DOI agency websites regarding the purpose of the withdrawal. In September 2015, a two-year segregation period started, during which an environmental impact analysis would be conducted by BLM to assess the environmental effects of the proposed withdrawal and several other alternative withdrawal boundaries. In 2016 the draft environmental impact statement for the proposed withdrawal was published. However, in October 2017, then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke cancelled the proposed withdrawal application and discontinued work on environmental impact statements.
Through March 2018, the BLM webpage “Sagebrush Focal Area Withdrawal” was live and contained useful information about the process of the proposed withdrawal evaluation, and the page had not been updated to reflect the cancellation of the proposed withdrawal. Rather, the page remained focused on the proposed withdrawal itself. The webpage provided an introductory two sentences regarding the purpose of the proposed withdrawal, which, while meager, relayed to the public the importance of these SFA lands and their protection from mining. The rest of the page was devoted to the process of the proposed withdrawal proceedings, including links to a draft environmental impact statement and other documents regarding the withdrawal. The webpage also stated that a final environmental impact statement would be published and linked from the webpage. However, rather than updating the page with a final EIS and notice of the cancellation, just before the public comment period for the resource management plan amendments opened on May 4, 2018, BLM deleted all information from the withdrawal webpage, and replaced it with a single paragraph stating that the withdrawal application had been cancelled and associated environmental analyses (e.g. development of the final EIS) had been terminated.
Three specific issues are of concern with this “Sagebrush Focal Area Withdrawal” webpage change.
- Simply stating the termination of a multi-year effort to assess the environmental pros and cons of a significant policy, with no explanation, is abdicating the agency’s responsibility to systematically and transparently conduct their research and represents a covert reallocation of resources.
- BLM vaguely makes reference to “a recent analysis and review of data available,” and fails to provide any form of citation about the data or its sources. This is an endemic problem across BLM websites, and indeed, across most federal agency websites. The lack of clear references or citations makes it impossible for a member of the public to read more about the topic, and absolutely skirts the agency’s accountability to the public. This disregard for citations wouldn’t pass in a middle school English class, and certainly should not be acceptable in our government’s primary form of public communication.
- Rather than updating the page to reflect the evolution of the policy, this approach erases history and leaves the public without context within which to situate new policies or proposals. Several BLM sage grouse webpages removed reference to the 2015 resource management plans upon the release of the 2018 proposed amendments (see report Pages 2 and 4). Without appropriate context, how is the public able to make informed opinions about proposed changes?
The vast majority of text about sage grouse on the BLM website pertains to processes and procedures, with an overt dearth of information about sage grouse, sage grouse habitat, the sagebrush ecosystem, or BLM conservation strategies and practices. Most of the resources available to the public about these issues on the BLM website lack depth and are nearly devoid of citations or avenues for the public to find more detailed information. For example, visitors to the BLM website searching for sage grouse information would quickly learn that BLM is proposing amendments to several plans, and might even see a political press release touting some governors’ support for the amendments, but beyond learning that the agency is working to better align its plans with those of the states (please note the direction of alignment sought), the visitor would find nearly nothing about what BLM is substantively doing to facilitate sage grouse conservation (i.e. information about the resource management plans themselves), nor about the changes the amendments entail. An ambitious web visitor may navigate to state conservation plans through sidebar links in the BLM website, where they encounter documents from 80 to 358 pages long, none of which encapsulate the federal strategy. The availability of these documents is essential and demonstrates a recognition that the public does deserve to know how its lands are being managed and protected, and documents for federal plans should be accessible from these webpages as well. Even so, the two ends of the information spectrum – with the one or two sentences in the BLM webpage text about safeguarding habitat on one end, and the hundred-page management plans on the other end, are simply not enough to adequately inform the public. There are some sidebar links to Instructional Memoranda to DOI employees for how to carry out the some of the specific requirements of the resource management plans, which are useful to provide some intermediate information to the public regarding agency tactics and how they relate to the overall plan. However, the IMs linked are only the most recent IMs for any topic, so any evolution or reversal of opinions and tactics are not visible to the public, and the IMs only cover a severe minority of topics raised in the resource management plans. The resources made available through the BLM website are insufficient to inform the public about substantial policy changes afoot regarding sage grouse conservation.
In an upcoming report, we at EDGI will analyze the informational resources on multiple agency websites during policy proposal cycles, and provide recommendations for how to make resources meaningfully accessible and to the broad audiences seeking information through federal agency websites.