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CODY -- Despite objections from a diverse range of interest groups and elected officials, land-use planning sessions with U.S. Bureau of Land Management staff members in Wyoming remain closed, and internal documents from that agency offer scant new insight into the reasoning behind that policy.

Public opinion is not unanimous in calling for open meetings between BLM planners and cooperating local groups like county commissioners and conservation districts, but at least one elected official working inside the process worries that the result will be a surprised and angry public.

"I do think when we finally have a draft to look at, I think the public will say they wish some of this had been opened so they would have been able to continue to give input throughout the process," said Park County Commissioner Jill Shockley Siggins.

Siggins has attended dozens of meetings over the past two years to discuss with BLM officials the proposed changes to the agency's Resource Management Plan for the Big Horn Basin. Similar planning sessions have been ongoing around the state.

Final plans will guide nearly every aspect of how millions of acres of public lands in Wyoming are managed, governing oil and gas development, off-road vehicle use, habitat management and more.

BLM rules prevent Siggins and other local cooperators from discussing specific proposed alternatives, or so-called "pre-decisional information," brought up in the meetings. But she said people in Park County and around the Big Horn Basin are likely to be as surprised with some proposed changes as they were when the National Park Service announced plans to close Sylvan Pass to winter travel.

Though that decision was later reversed after extensive negotiations, Siggins said, "We are about to have the same thing happen on BLM land, only I think people are going to be more shocked."

Siggins said such surprises could be avoided by opening planning meetings to public scrutiny, while limiting discussion and debate to only BLM staffers and local cooperators, a policy followed by Shoshone National Forest planners.

"Everything we do regarding public lands or public dollars should be transparent and open," she said.

Public confusion

BLM staffers have said that the meetings should be closed for several reasons: people are likely to be confused by hearing about proposed alternatives that are never adopted; participants should be free to speak their minds without public scrutiny; passionate observers may disrupt proceedings; and the public may already participate by attending open houses, reading information on websites and talking with elected officials.

None of those reasons justify closing the meetings, and commissioners are largely prevented from having substantive discussions about specific details being considered, Siggins said.

"The public has a right to hear the discussions. There are some parts of our freedom of speech that can be ugly, but I think it's necessary," she said.

Internal BLM documents delivered to The Gazette in response to a request made under the Freedom of Information Act show the agency is sensitive to public criticism of its policy, and has offered a variety of reasons for closing the meetings.

An April 2009 memo titled "Early Alert," listing Wyoming BLM director Don Simpson as the contact for additional information, coaches Wyoming BLM field offices on how to answer questions from reporters asking about closed-door meetings.

It offers talking points drafted in response to inquiries from Northern Wyoming Daily News publisher Lee Lockhart.

"Mr. Lockhart's questioning was antagonistic," the memo states, warning that "an editorial may be printed in the Northern Wyoming Daily News as a result of the interview."

The memo reminds staffers that meetings are closed based on federal environmental regulations and BLM policy, but fails to point out that the law allows for them to open such meetings if agency decision-makers prefer that option, or if state law requires it, as is the case in Montana.

It also states that cooperating agency members "support the format of the meetings and are confident that they are speaking for their constituents."

In fact, many elected officials have been openly critical of the closed meetings and have lobbied the BLM to open them. County commissioners in Park and Sheridan counties have signed letters calling for open meetings, and Gov. Dave Freudenthal has also pushed to open them.

Another undated, unsigned internal BLM memo lists many of the same points, but in question-and-answer format.

Guise of openness

In response to a question about why the meetings are closed, the answer in that memo states: "Cloaked in the guise of openness, opening these meetings would most likely sidetrack the real work of the deliberative process, adding confusion, which would likely add significant time to the RMP revision process or lengthen the process for" creating a draft plan.

A July 2009 memo from BLM's Simpson to Wyoming district managers and field managers offers 22 pages of advice in response to "inquires and requests from members of the public, not cooperators, to be granted a seat at the table during cooperating agency meetings."

The memo states that it is in "support of the public's need for current information" and is "bolstered by the President's principles of transparency in government," but it offers few new options for sharing substantive information from closed planning sessions.

Instead, it provides a dizzying array of detail on every aspect of how to conduct open house sessions where the public may get general information, but virtually no specifics about proposed alternatives.

Simpson's memo advises "setting up information stations or booths, with attractive posters" offering broad background information.

"Poster design templates will be developed at the BLM Wyoming State office," the memo states, and "each cooperator or proponent may have at least one poster station, but more than 'one-per' is also appropriate.

"As always, any printed or published material representing the BLM must be cleared through the district public affairs specialist, as well as the Wyoming State Office, Office of Communications."

In addition to open houses, the memo advises providing regular written updates on the planning process in newsletters and on the agency's website.

"BLM will employ a combination of information tactics to ensure publics [sic] are informed and afforded the opportunity to be active participants" in the planning process, it states.

'Brief but informative'

Such updates "do not need to be lengthy" because "high graphic content will keep these brief but informative," Simpson's memo states.

Another memo, dated Feb. 10 and labeled "Internal Working Document," might offer substantial insight into BLM policies on open meetings. The memo is from BLM Director Bob Abbey and was sent to Simpson, with the subject line, "Cooperator Meetings when formulating Resource Management Plans."

But the body of the three-page document was completely redacted by the agency before its release. The Gazette has appealed the agency's decision to withhold the memo, but has yet to receive a response.

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In justifying the redaction, Simpson wrote that the memo and other redacted documents "record the authors' personal interpretations and impressions of candid discussions (and sometimes the candid discussions themselves) in the process producing a final decision."

"The referenced recommendations and deliberations include opinions regarding RMP meeting processes and recommendations about what may need to happen for a final decision," he states, using language that echoes the reasons justifying why the agency's planning meetings are closed.

Siggins said the deliberative process can be daunting, and notes that the current draft management plan runs more than 1,400 pages.

Cooperators recently met with representatives from environmental groups and the energy industry to discuss the planning process, but most members of the public are not getting detailed information, she said.

Recent discussions have included options to manage many so-called "areas with wilderness characteristics" as if they were actually designated as protected wilderness areas, a move that could close wide sections of public lands to energy development and some forms of recreation, she said.

And though the BLM has held tours, field trips and open houses in response to public concerns about the closed meetings, the simplest solution is to open planning meetings and let people hear discussions about how their lands will be managed, she said.

"What's wrong with openness in public debate?" Siggins said. "What is wrong with the public hearing this, so that everybody is held accountable?"

Contact Ruffin Prevost at (307) 527-7250 or rprevost@billingsgazette.com

SECOND STORY

Some see benefit in closed meetings

Consultant prefers meetings with BLM excluding those with 'strong agendas'

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By RUFFIN PREVOST

The Billings Gazette

CODY -- Though a wide range of elected officials, interest groups and individuals have called on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to open land-use planning sessions, one advocate thinks the closed process works best.

"We feel that the net effect of inviting the public to those meetings would be more of a negative than a positive," said Dick Loper, a rangeland issues consultant for the Wyoming State Grazing Board.

Loper represents ranchers who lease large federal grazing allotments on BLM lands in Wyoming, and advises his clients on how changes in the agency's regional Resource Management Plans might affect their operations.

"We're not a high-profile organization, we don't do lobbying and we don't get involved in politics," said Loper, who lives in Lander. "We stay pretty technical."

Elected officials "come from a political climate," and allowing the public to sit in on planning meetings makes it more likely those officials will "feel obliged to play to the choir instead of sitting down and learning the issues," Loper said.

"That's our major concern, that elected officials may not feel they can be as open and honest and effective as they otherwise would have been" without the public present, Loper said.

He said some county commissioners, including ones in Fremont and Sublette counties, prefer closed meetings.

"I do know from talking to some of those folks that they're feeling pressure from their agenda-driven constituency to participate, and we feel like that destroys the cooperating program," he said.

Loper said that many individuals on all sides of various issues, including grazing, have "strong agendas," and those people might disrupt or unduly influence the planning process.

Hilary Eisen, a Cody-based public lands specialist for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, is one of a handful of Wyoming environmental advocates who have asked the BLM to explain the closed meetings, and to consider opening them to the public.

"We're like a dog chasing its tail," Eisen said of her discussions with the agency about closed meetings.

"They keep using the same reasoning to tell you why they can't tell you, and the reason they can't tell you is something they can't tell you," she said.

When meetings are closed and people haven't been a part of the planning process, they aren't likely to feel like they had a meaningful role in the final decision, Eisen said.

Based on a recent slight increase in disclosure from the agency, including "the first newsletter in two years and a few more documents on their website," Eisen said she has an idea of what might be in a draft plan scheduled for release early next year.

"But my picture could be completely wrong, so it's frustrating," she said.

She said closed meetings might work well enough for people like Loper, a paid consultant with regular access to BLM staff, but most of the public must rely on a few elected officials and appointed representatives, with little information to go on.

In fact, a series of e-mails shows that Loper enjoys a rapport with at least one BLM official that goes beyond that afforded to most members of the public.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, The Gazette obtained e-mails exchanged in March and April 2009 between Loper and BLM Bighorn Basin District Manager Eddie Bateson.

"I really appreciate your support in having these meetings closed to the public and your understanding of what could (have) evolved if we (had a) different take on this position," Bateson writes to Loper.

"I don't think, however, that we have heard the last of it as we continue to get inquiries from newspaper reporters, public, etc. on their dissatisfaction," Bateson writes.

Bateson writes that the BLM is considering hosting periodic open houses that would allow the agency to "control the information presented."

"What do you think?" Bateson asks Loper, before adding as a postscript: "I will be in Lander most of the week next week...maybe lunch?"

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