THE PUBLIC PROCESS:
The purpose of this article is to give you a shortcut overview of how to get involved in the management of your public lands. It will also tell you how to have "standing" in legal actions and be a key participant in what happens to your favorite recreation area. By no means can everything about public input be covered in one short article; but you'll find most everything you need here to get started and be effective.
Remember: public lands are your lands. You have the right to be included in the actions taken to manage your land.
The public process as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, and other laws require all federal agencies to solicit and consider public input during the development of management plans, programs, regulations and other actions.
To fully participate in the public process, the first step is to notify the appropriate agency of your interest in becoming involved. This should be in the form of a letter requesting that your name and address be place on the mailing list for all information regarding the management of public land under that agency's jurisdiction. In most cases, one should specify the extent or range of information desired. In other words, if you are only interested in receiving documents that relate to access to public lands for recreational activities (or road closures) and do not care to review cattle grazing allotment plans, mining proposals, timber sales, or other such activities; your letter should state so. But be careful here as sometimes timber sales, for example, include road closures and re-routes.
The following is an example of a letter to request to receive generic information related to management actions that could result in the loss of motorized access for recreational activities.
(Name/Title of Specific Person if you have one)
Dear (Name of person or agency):
I request that my name and address be place on all mailing lists for any planning activities/actions/decisions/analyses that could result in closing existing roads or trails. In addition to management plans that focus specifically on motorized use, I am interested in receiving planning documents for other resource management plans that may involve the closure of motorized access as a sub-issue.
Thank you for your valuable time and consideration.
It can be very helpful to get on the USFS specific mailing list of Proposed Actions (all kinds) in the document they call the Environmental Analysis Quarterly. You must write and ask to be placed on this list (usually by name). The Forest Supervisor is a good place to write for this document. The Environmental Analysis Quarterly will give you the full scope of projects and the name of the project coordinator. This document typically applies to an entire National Forest so you can see all the projects (briefly) and the area they effect.
STEPS INVOLVED IN THE PUBLIC PROCESS
A sign in sheet is always available at the meeting. The purpose of the sign in sheet is for the agency to record the names and addresses of interested parties to allow follow up information to be mailed. If you are interested in participating in the public process, it is very important to sign in and write legibly. In most cases the agency will have handouts that further describe what is involved in the proposed management action and provide the name and address of the agency's point of contact.
In many cases agency personnel, during the meeting, take verbal public comments but very often the comments are not documented well enough to be interpreted back at the office. It is, therefore, much more effective for an interested member of the public to provide comments in writing at the end of the meeting or by mailing in comments shortly thereafter.
If you cannot attend the Scoping meeting you can still participate in the process by contacting the agency and expressing your interest.
2. DRAFT ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT (DEIS) OR DRAFT ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT (DEA)
This step also includes the opportunity for further public participation. The DEIS or DEA always involves a public comment period ranging from fifteen to ninety days for interested parties to submit additional written comments to the agency.
You will find a variety of approaches to EA's and EIS documents. On one hand, the agency may approach the assessment from a perspective of "how can we improve recreational opportunities." On the other hand, they may take the approach that sounds more like "things are broken; how can we mitigate them?" Obviously, the way the Purpose and Needs statements are worded determines the approach and the outcome of the document. A bias can be built in from the start. So it is critical for you to focus closely on the Purpose and Needs statements. Your input may be based on rebutting the original intent and the way the assessment was tackled from the beginning.
3. FINAL EIS/EA
Within the final environmental document, is a decision notice which should give an explanation of the procedure for challenging the decision. This could involve an appeal, protest, or other action depending upon the scope and significance of the decision. At this point the only recourse the public has it to formally challenge the final decision using the procedure defined in the decision notice.
4. APPEALS, PROTESTS, AND OTHER REMEDIES
5. LEGAL ACTION
Even if you don't have the resources for litigation, you should at least appeal a bad decision that has adverse effects on your interests. This is because a third party such as a legal foundation or larger national organization could come to your aid if your issue is significant and you have fully participated in the public process.
Hopefully, before you ever get to legal action, you have done such things as participated in agency field trips in your area of interest; gotten to know your local agency personnel (and maybe even "adopted a Ranger"); and spent the time and energy it takes to express your opinion to your elected officials.
NOTE: The above explanation of the public process is a basic outline and not intended to be totally comprehensive. For additional information or clarification, please contact:
or Del Albright