Living in the Western U.S. provides numerous opportunities to comment on public land management decisions. From comprehensive resource and forest management plans to motorized route designations and grazing practice decisions, local citizens have the opportunity to attend public meetings and send in written comments.
These opportunities for more involvement are continuing. A few weeks ago meetings were held on the BLM's "working landscape" grazing initiative; the BLM also has resource management plans in various stages of completion throughout Utah, including the Moab, Price, Monticello, Richfield, and Vernal field offices.
Emery County will continue to take center stage as the BLM develops management alternatives for the San Rafael Swell and surrounding area and then seeks comment on the various scenarios.
An interest in the public comment process and the ongoing and often intensely emotional efforts surrounding public input on the San Rafael Swell led me to take a closer look at both the number and type of comments received. I wanted to find out how the BLM handles the voluminous amount of written comments.
After reading and analyzing the hundreds of comments sent in regarding the recent San Rafael Swell motorized recreation route designation plan I came to realize two things: first, many private individuals do not send in the "substantive" comments that the BLM takes into consideration. These "non-substantive" comments and are therefore generally ignored (or at least not as thoroughly and rigorously considered) in the planning process; second, these "non-substantive" comments deserve a more thorough examination and consideration by public land managers.
So what's the difference between a "substantive" and "non-substantive" comment?
Obviously deciding if something has "substance" is a subjective exercise and many would argue that the way a standard dictionary defines the term all comments could qualify.
But here it's the BLM's categorization and conception that matters most, and their approach can best be illustrated by utilizing examples.
The following questions/comments are two of the 125 considered by the BLM in formulating the travel plan.
"The socioeconomic analysis is inadequate because it asserts that none of the alternatives would have any measurable economic effect to the local communities."
"Cane Wash should be closed to vehicle use because it contains important springs, and the riparian habitat it provides for wildlife like bighorn sheep is not an appropriate place for OHV use."
These comments are "substantive" for the BLM because they question or target specific concerns such as economic and environmental impacts that can be examined, unlike many comments that rely solely on opinions, feelings, or ideological rhetoric.
If you go to www.ut.blm.gov/sanrafaelohv/comments.htm and read all the questions and responses you will develop a better idea of what the BLM considers "substantive" comments. You will also begin to appreciate the amount of work that the BLM put into categorizing and responding to public comments.
But if this is all you read, you will miss out on a lot of the rich insight provided by the public.
For instance, of the 969 unique comments sent in by individuals, approximately 143 expressed concern at the "bias" of the plan in favor of environmental groups. These numerous comments are typified by this one from Salt Lake City.
"This plan is very disturbing in that it is permeated, through and through, with a visceral bias against people who use vehicles to access and recreate on lands administered by the BLM."
The piles of comments on this topic are only dealt with tangentially on the website (see question Rec19).
Numerous other letters worry or are angry about their "rights" and "freedom" being taken away. An excerpt from one comment reads, "The federal government's public land policies have impacted, as Americans, our freedom to access and enjoy our public lands. Its policies have effected our right to choose where we live, and decide how we earn a living and pass it onto our children."
Over one hundred comments focused on family bonding with comments such as "[Our] new family tradition transcends at least three generations and provides invaluable opportunities to gain unique memories and relationships, not to mention seeing some of the best natural scenery in Utah!" Many other even state that route closures may even harm their families.
Physical limitations, are another topic, as illustrated by this quote, "Don't discriminate against various users. There are a lot of older people and handicap[ed] people who enjoy places that they could never get to in any other fashion, except on 4-wheelers."
These type of comments are dealt with by the BLM, but only as they specifically apply to the "substantive" concerns of being in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (see Rec40).
And these are just a small sampling of the dozens of "non-substantive" comments identified in a close reading of the thousands of pages submitted to the BLM. Most of these comments are either not addressed or are only partially considered by the BLM's official response publication.
While the previous examples all came from pro-access advocates, those commenting in favor of limiting motorized access also had their share of "non-substantive" comments. Many of these focused on the need to preserve the area for their children, argued for their "right" to peace, and expressed their ideological qualms with the internal combustion engine.
But it appears to me that those who express "environmentalist" sentiments have learned how to "play the game" a little bit better than most. In other word they have been taught (often by environmental groups) what the BLM prioritizes as far as public comments are concerned, and they modify their comments accordingly.
While it's time that more people realize what the BLM values and adjust their comments, I also believe that the BLM and other land management agencies should develop better means of handling, considering, and valuing "non-substantive" as well as "substantive" comments. I fully expect that the boxes of data from public comment efforts will continue to grow, and if we dismiss the bulk of them I fear we may lose potentially valuable insight into the interaction between people and public land, information that goes to the heart of the often emotionally charged public lands debate in Utah and the West.