BLM vows changes after RAC attacks
Following accusations of politicking a year ago, a federal official is promising a “more open process” this year regarding how citizens are appointed to advisory boards for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Colorado environmental groups complained to U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton about last year’s appointments, after Republican Colorado Gov. Bill Owens’ nominees to Resource Advisory Councils were accepted en masse.
The groups contend proper procedures weren’t followed in the case of the nominees.
Mark Stiles, Western Slope Center manager for the BLM, doesn’t agree with all the criticism, but acknowledged the need to clarify the rules and make sure everyone is following them.
“I just think you’ll see that all the requirements are going to be met in this year’s nomination packets,” he said.
Those nominations are now being accepted (see related story).
He said BLM officials have been carefully reviewing the nomination process in the wake of allegations that Owens managed to stack the RACs with members sharing his political views.
The allegations were detailed Jan. 31 in a letter to Norton signed by representatives of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Mountain Club, Wilderness Society and Sierra Club.
Glenwood Springs resident Steve Smith, Southwest regional representative for the Sierra Club, was among those signing the letter.
Stiles said the concern surrounds the fact that Owens sent a list of 13 nominees for the RACs, and all ended up being appointed. In total, there were 14 vacancies and about 75 nominees.
“The unlawful `stacking of the RACs’ is of concern to everyone who cares about the proper management of public lands,” the environmental groups wrote.
They wrote that opponents of the action include current and former RAC members, and RAC nominees who were overlooked.
The Northwest RAC, which advises the BLM regarding a region that includes the Glenwood Springs area, also wrote to the BLM, expressing concerns that the appointment process may have hurt the RACs’ credibility, and asking for an investigation of the selection process.
Stiles said he understands people concluding that the appointments were political, but added, “I think that’s absolutely false. I think it’s dangerous for people to make that conclusion.”
He noted that some of the 13 people recommended by Owens also were recommended through other channels.
“If the governor hadn’t named them, their names would have still been considered. They’re great nominees,” he said.
Environmentalists specifically complained that Owens submitted a blanket letter of recommendation for at least seven of the 13 nominees, and that procedures require individual letters. They said the letter was sent weeks past the mandated deadline.
“This abuse of process is patently unfair to those candidates who lawfully applied to serve on this body, and is thereby damaging to the credibility of the RACs themselves,” they wrote.
They also complained that the nominees in many cases represented only a narrow set of interests, many of which are already well-represented on the RACs.
For example, they said, a representative of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition was appointed as a “public-at-large” representative to the Northwest RAC although two other members representing off-road vehicle interests already sit on that body, including another COHVCO board officer.
Stiles said there are different views on whether Owens’ blanket letter constituted a letter of recommendation, and the question is being reviewed by the BLM at a national level.
“There’s different interpretations of the regulations out there. There’s not much I can do about that because people see things the way they see them,” he said.
In the meantime, he said, the BLM is making it clear that nominations must come in with letters of recommendation.
He also said the deadline that concerned environmentalists regarded the BLM’s call for nominations from the public, and the governor is not bound by the same time line.
“There are things like that that I don’t see as being an issue,” he said.
Regulations specifically provide for governors to make nominations, he said.
“We expect and hope that they put in nominations,” said Stiles.
When Democrat Roy Romer was Colorado’s governor, some of his nominees were picked as well, he said.
“It’s been fully contemplated that the governors of the state would be in a good position to make nominations.”
Stiles said he thinks that this year, people will be better able to see how appointments are made.
“I think folks will find that things have been corrected,” he said.
By that, he said, he doesn’t mean policy changes, but making sure that all appropriate steps are followed and understood.
This effort has included clarifying requirements in press releases and other materials, and working with the governor’s office as well, he said.
The goal is to leave less room for interpretation and guessing, he said.
Ultimately, Stiles believes, the composition of the RACs has mattered less than their willingness to tackle issues.
“They’ve always amazed me the way they’re willing to work through issues and get to a consensus no matter who’s sitting at the table,” he said.
These groups are advisory in nature only; the BLM is prohibited by law from turning authority over to them.
But Stiles said they still perform an important function, and he’s never seen their advice ignored.
“It’s always been very wise, very good advice … and it’s always been very helpful to us.”
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