Wyden, Merkley Urge Feds to Lift Sudden Suspension of Public Land Advisory Groups

Washington, DC  –  U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today urged the Interior Department to lift its sudden suspension of long-standing local committees and advisory boards that provide essential community input on public land management.

The letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke follows reports from Oregonians on public resource advisory councils and committees (RACs) that the Department of Interior (DOI) postponed all their meetings until September.

“We are very concerned about this news and would like an answer as to why the RAC meetings were postponed during the BLM’s review of all advisory boards and committees,” Wyden and Merkley wrote. “It is critical that local voices, including RACs, have the opportunity to provide input and take part in the process at all times, not just when those local voices align with the Administration or a large special interest.”

These advisory groups were included both in Wyden’s original legislation creating Secure Rural Schools (SRS) support for counties in Oregon and nationwide; and the Interior Department’s own rules dating back to 1995. The advisory groups are designed to get diverse community input on often-contentious public land management issues.

Those advisory groups have long helped to balance questions of environmental and economic impacts by informing decisions on issues such as recreation, land use planning, grazing, oil and gas exploration, and wildfire management.

“Balancing these interests is challenging, which is why RACs were created,” the lawmakers wrote. “By working through difficult land management issues and getting local input from the beginning, projects are more likely to succeed. Without this tool, many good land management projects would never be completed.”

Oregon faces an additional funding concern from the suspension of resource advisory committees operated by the BLM. By law, those committees initiate projects on BLM forests that improve forest health, create local jobs, and achieve forest management goals. These projects funded under SRS must be selected and initiated by September 30, 2017. But if the committees’ meetings are postponed until September, Oregon counties would lose that funding if the advisory groups could not meet and initiate projects in a timely fashion.

“This delay could cause counties in Oregon to lose federal funds that could have gone to improve the health of their forests and create local jobs,” the letter said.

Also signing the letter were Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich (both D-N.M.), Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell (both D-Wash.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). A copy of the entire letter is here