The COVID-19 crisis is top of mind for everyone, and we are rightfully concerned about our health, safety and the security of our loved ones. There is growing recognition that some things once considered urgent must be postponed or cancelled while we handle this emergency. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has not done its part to acknowledge this.
As the former N.M. state director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), I am worried about Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s decision not to allow an extension or postponement of the public comment period for a significant land-use planning process and other activities that were in the works prior to the pandemic. This includes a recently released draft plan amendment for northwestern New Mexico, the area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
This plan has generated significant interest over the years from a wide variety of people and groups, in particular the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG). The pueblos are not supportive of the approach DOI has proposed, which could allow further oil and gas leasing and drilling near Chaco Canyon.
Understandably, pueblo leaders – along with stakeholders statewide – are concerned and want the opportunity to participate in this important decision-making process.
The land-use planning process is designed to ensure those most affected by DOI’s decisions, including local communities, tribes and others, are able to raise concerns and learn from BLM officials. This occurs through a series of public meetings BLM is required to hold in and around impacted communities. However, with the state’s stay-at-home order, folks cannot safely attend these meetings – depriving the public of a crucial way to weigh in. Under normal circumstances, the public would have 90 days to review the plan and submit comments. But these are not normal circumstances, and more time is needed.
The public cannot sincerely engage if the comment period is not adjusted to account for the obstacles posed by the ongoing crisis. For instance, here in New Mexico – the 49th-ranked state in the country for internet access – those lacking the resources to submit comments online may be unable to. This is of particular concern for tribal households, less than half of which have access to fixed broadband service and who are entitled to robust input opportunities as part of the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations. For lands sacred to the pueblos, the administration should want more input from tribal communities, not less.
This concern stretches beyond Chaco and New Mexico. From other management plans to oil and gas lease sales to federal rulemakings, DOI has numerous public engagement periods that are certain to be impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.
Bernhardt has often espoused the value of hearing directly from impacted communities. Visiting Chaco Canyon was a profound experience for him; he claimed it “changed his perspective about Chaco Canyon in terms of its significance.” As a result, he supported a one-year moratorium on leasing near Chaco. But now his department has yet to appreciate the crisis confronting our country and is plowing ahead with previously scheduled public comment and engagement periods. The end result is the public will be shut out of conversations about where and how development should take place.
Public input is required by law and should be a priority for the administration. Given this, I join the numerous non-profit organizations, tribes, the entire New Mexico delegation and others in asking the Interior Department to extend all comment periods until the current public health crisis has passed so the public has a meaningful opportunity to weigh in. Failing to do so would undercut local community input in favor of only a few, precisely what public comment periods are meant to prevent.