Update: The Medicine Bow National Forest responded to WyoFile questions March 9. Those responses have been added to the bottom of this story — Ed.
Ninety-six percent of comments on a plan to build a 264-foot-high dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Carbon County opposed the project, a WyoFile tally of submissions shows.
Some 899 of the 936 submissions to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Forest Service urged the agencies not to permit the dam, or the associated state-federal land swap to facilitate it on the West Fork of Battle Creek above the Little Snake River valley, according to calculations.
Eight comments backed construction while more than 20 appeared to be neutral. They were made in response to the agencies’ call for input as they write an environmental impact statement analyzing alternatives and impacts, including exchanging federal National Forest land for state property to enable the project.
The dam, proposed by Wyoming and Colorado irrigators and the Wyoming Water Development Commission, would impound 10,000 acre feet in a 130-acre reservoir to be used mainly for late-season irrigation. The NRCS, an agency that aids private-land agriculture, is writing the EIS while the Forest Service undertakes a “parallel process” to determine whether a land exchange is feasible and in the public interest.
One conservationist said the overwhelming opposition should put the Forest Service on notice.
“That’s a telling message to the Forest Service that this isn’t in the public’s best interest,” said Sarah Walker of the Wyoming Wilderness Association.
It’s uncertain, however, how much weight the opposition comments will carry. In the federal system for commenting on such issues, regulators tell the public that “the comment process is not a vote.”
Form letters discouraged
Although Walker said the comments should be “really helpful” to the Forest Service when determining whether to exchange its property with Wyoming, state and federal officials were generally mum on the implications of the submittals.
The Wyoming Water Development Commission and Water Development Office would not address the implications of the tally. “For consistency and to ensure the accuracy of information,” reaction should come from the NRCS, Jason Mead, interim director of the water office wrote in an email.
The NRCS did not respond to a Feb. 27 email seeking how the comments might affect the land-exchange process. A Medicine Bow National Forest spokesman wrote that his agency was assembling a response to similar questions.
WyoFile asked when the Forest Service would complete its feasibility analysis and how it might then account for public interest. WyoFile had not received an answer to those questions by press time.
Meantime, the draft EIS analyzing dam construction plans and the land exchange is apparently on track to be completed in about five months. “We are anticipating the publication of the draft EIS in September 2023 … and then publication of the Final EIS next April and [a] signed record of decision by next May,” Amanda Nicodemus, a consultant working for the NRCS said at a public meeting in Craig, Colorado, in January.
Federal guidelines recommend that comments be “well-supported” and that decisions will be based on “sound reasoning and scientific evidence rather than a majority of votes.”
“The government is attempting to formulate the best policy, so when crafting a comment it is important that you adequately explain the reasoning behind your position,” the guidelines state.
The guidelines also discount campaigns designed to encourage uniform responses, stating that “a single, well-supported comment may carry more weight than a thousand form letters.”
Decision makers may be swayed by public attitudes, however. “[P]ublic support or opposition may help guide important public policies,” the guidelines state.
Many of the submissions objecting to the land exchange and dam construction follow a similar form: “Tell the Forest Service to reject the land trade proposal … remind the Forest Service that they cannot agree to a land exchange unless the trade will serve the public interest … The project would be a windfall for a small number of rancher-irrigators but would provide scant benefit to the public.”
A number of submissions, however, ask the NRCS and Forest Service to account for various factors that may not be on the regulators’ radars as they analyze the proposal. Many pointed out factors submitters said the agencies should consider in the scope of their analysis but without specifically weighing in for or against the plan.
Among those submissions are comments from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Little Snake River Conservation District, private irrigators, a host of conservation and sporting groups, agriculture interests, the Navajo Nation and some federal and state agencies. Federal documents give varying counts of submissions — from 935-944. WyoFile downloaded submissions made by the Feb. 13 deadline and counted 936.
Update: A spokesman for the Medicine Bow National Forest responded to WyoFile questions March 9 with the following — Ed.
WyoFile: Will simple opposition or “not-in-the-public-interest” declarations be discounted as a “vote” or accumulated and gauged as evidence that the plan is not in the public interest?
Medicine Bow: In general, comments are considered substantive if they raise specific issues or concerns regarding the project or the study process, but not if they merely express support for or opposition to the project or a particular alternative. Statements such as “the comment process is not a vote” are meant to stimulate useful, substantive public comments.
WyoFile: How is the Medicine Bow National Forest considering the submissions? Will it analyze all of the 900-plus submissions or is it analyzing only those the NRCS believes are relevant to the Forest Service aspect of the parallel process?
Medicine Bow: All comments received during the comment period will be considered during preparation of the final EIS. The EIS must summarize the scoping process, the results of any meetings that have been held, and any comments received during preliminary coordination. Between the draft and final EIS, NRCS must consider and respond to all substantive comments received on the draft EIS, including those from public hearings. The final EIS must include copies of the comments received and the agency’s responses. If comments are voluminous, they may be summarized. If the EIS was changed in response to comments, changes will be referenced in the responses.
For the land exchange portion, the Forest Service will be reviewing comments referring to the exchange proposal. Those have been provided to the Forest Service by SWCA.
WyoFile: Has the USFS made a feasibility determination regarding the land exchange, and, if not, when is that expected? Will an environmental analysis follow that determination if the exchange is deemed feasible?
Medicine Bow: The feasibility study is not complete. The Forest Service does not have a hard date set for completion of the feasibility study. However, the completed study will need to coincide with the ongoing EIS process, so is expected approximately mid-year 2023. If the proposed exchange is deemed feasible, the environmental analyses required for the Land Exchange will be completed through the West Fork Battle Creek Watershed Plan EIS, for which NRCS is the lead.