Comments burgeon after electronic versions decision | AspenTimes.com

Comments burgeon after electronic versions decision

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GARFIELD COUNTY ” The federal government received thousands of new comments, many of them form letters, after extending the deadline for providing feedback on how to manage part of the Roan Plateau.

The new input came after the Bureau of Land Management reversed its requirement that comments about the Roan’s areas of critical environmental concern, or ACECs, be mailed via U.S. Postal Service or dropped off at its Glenwood Springs office.

Heeding requests from conservation groups, it provided 14 more days to submit comments via electronic means such as e-mail, the Internet or fax machine, as well as in traditional paper formats.

The vast majority of those ” 41,539 to be exact ” were submitted on a CD by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which collected them on a Web site. Many of the NRDC comments were identical to ones people submitted based on a sample letter suggested by NRDC, or were modified versions of that letter.

The NRDC had collected nearly 35,000 of those comments before the BLM’s earlier comment period on the ACECs, and submitted them to the BLM with a note asking that it consider them even though they were electronically generated.

The BLM originally rejected requests to accept electronic forms of comment but officials later changed their minds and provided another two weeks to do so.

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The ACECs public comment period is resulting from a technicality related to the BLM’s planning process for the Roan Plateau. In June, the agency issued a final decision for the plateau’s management, including a controversial plan to allow oil and gas drilling to occur on the plateau top.

However, that decision currently applies to a little more than 50,000 acres. The BLM agreed with a protest contending that a Federal Register Notice regarding its draft Roan plan didn’t contain enough detail about the proposed 21,000 acres of ACECs in the planning area, and it decided to accept additional comments about ACECs.

The NRDC sample letter calls for expanding the acreage protected as ACECs, and closing ACECs on the plateau top to drilling.

The BLM had received fewer than 100 comments before its first deadline. Besides the massive infusion of new ones funneled through the NRDC, BLM spokesman David Boyd said the agency also received 38 e-mailed comments, and a mailed packet of about 50 form letters apparently signed by people generally living in the area.

Boyd said the NRDC also was responsible for collecting about 87 percent of the 75,000 comments the BLM received for its draft management plan for the Roan.

Boyd said the volume of comments carries some weight in the agency’s decision-making.

“But it is hard because it’s not necessarily a representative sampling of the population of Colorado or the population of the United States. They’re generally coming from one specific website,” he said.

As a result, he said, the agency doesn’t know if the views are a statistically valid representation of public views as a whole.

By comparison, sometimes a single comment can raise a significant point for the BLM regarding an error it made or something it failed to analyze, Boyd said.

Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the NRDC in Colorado, said that while the BLM says public land planning doesn’t come down to a vote, public input is required by law and crucial to the agency’s decision-making. It sometimes can lead to the agency dropping projects or parts of projects, she said.

“It can be very important, it can be very influential,” she said.

She said a lot of people comment on public lands via electronic means, and she appreciated that the BLM ended up agreeing to allow comments in that form.

“We think it’s really important for the public to have the opportunity to weigh in on their federal lands. They belong to all Americans and there are a lot of people out there who care about these lands,” she said.

She said the NRDC has about 18,000 members in Colorado. She didn’t immediately have a breakdown on where those who commented on the ACECs live.

“I’m sure there are people from all over the country,” she said.

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