Jim Laybourn, a wildlife tour guide, advocates for grizzlies outside the meeting of an interagency committee that considers the fate of the bear at Teton Village in November 2015. Some conservationists believe the Trump administration and some members of Congress are cutting the public out of decisions regarding wildlife, public lands and the environment. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

Congresswoman Liz Cheney and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso are contributing to an agenda that marginalizes or ignores citizen input on and participation in public land, wildlife and environmental issues, a chorus of critics says.

Cheney’s recently introduced bill that would charge people who challenge oil and gas leases is the latest example of the trend, conservationists say. A federal watchdog group this week said Barrasso’s efforts to change key elements of the Endangered Species Act fit the pattern by cloaking some deliberations, limiting comment periods and reducing opportunities to challenge decisions in court.

Barrasso said in a statement Monday that his efforts are bipartisan, backed by Western governors and more than 100 stakeholders, including conservationists. “The bill improves transparency in the process and increases local input,” his statement said. “The people of Wyoming should have a say in how the state’s species are recovered, so that we have the best chance for success. My bill gives Wyoming that say.”

WyoFile did not receive a response to a request for comment from Cheney’s office over the last five days as her bill was drawing fire.

“Congressman Cheney’s bill is a classic example of … trying to price the public out of the decision-making process,” said Aaron Weiss, media director for the Center for Western Priorities in Denver, Colorado. “That’s anti-American.”

Barrasso’s proposal to give states sweeping new authority under the Endangered Species Act also disenfranchises the public, said Kyla Bennett, director of New England Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“This is a trend,” she said, and Barrasso’s proposed changes to imperiled-wildlife law is really “an excuse to gut environmental regulations.”

Cheney’s bill recently passed out of the House Committee on Natural Resources with a divided vote. Barrasso recently released a discussion draft of proposed ESA changes, drawing a broadsides from PEER.

2016 elections turned the tide

Soon after the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president, Cheney led Congress to repeal a wide-sweeping Bureau of Land Management regulation that sought landscape-scale planning to protect natural resources. It was the beginning of a tide of changes to land-use and wildlife policies that have since radiated from Washington, D.C.

Congress is considering Cheney’s recent bill and others that supporters say cut red tape and expedite oil and gas drilling. Those include a bill Barrasso introduced early this year that would allow states, not the federal government, to lease lands owned by all Americans for oil and gas development.

Many other actions have occurred at the executive level in the Department of the Interior where Secretary Ryan Zinke has instituted policies and practices hostile to conservation, critics say. Among those are his upending of a collaborative West-wide effort to conserve greater sage grouse, a plan reached after years of public participation.

Zinke also ignored public comment supporting national monuments preservation and curtailment of oilfield methane emissions, critics say. He sidelined national parks and BLM advisory panels, groups that agencies used to take the public temperature. By executive order he’s reduced opportunities to comment on oil and gas leasing, causing environmental groups to sue.

The Wyoming delegation sees its actions as constructive, however. Cheney’s bill to charge for protests, which passed the House Committee on Natural Resources on an 18-13 vote June 27, “levels the playing field,” she said in her statement.

The pilot for researchers studying mule deer habitat and migration lands a pair of deer at a pump jack on their winter range in 2014. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

In introducing her “Removing Barriers to Energy Independence Act,” Cheney called the energy industry “the lifeblood of our economy in Wyoming,” and said in a statement it has been “severely burdened by lengthy and often frivolous protests.” If enacted, Cheney’s bill would only impose “a small fee,” a “nominal” amount that would not preclude public participation,” her statement said.

Some groups “have taken advantage of the ability to file protests for free by flooding the permitting agencies with frivolous protests,” Cheney said in filing her bill. Her measure would bring “much needed and long overdue relief to Wyoming oil and gas operators.”

Last year challengers protested more than 80 percent of leases in the state, Cheney said, but only four were upheld by the BLM and none on environmental grounds.

Protesters would have been charged $1,510

In one oil and gas leasing protest filed by the Wilderness Society, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the National Audubon Society, the groups contend the federal agency is violating federal laws and regulations. At issue are bedrock environmental protections in the National Environmental Policy and the Federal Land Policy and Management acts, plus resource rules established at local levels for BLM districts. The leases risk antelope migration routes, sage grouse habitat, winter range and other valuable natural resources, the groups said.

Had Cheney’s bill been in effect, it would have cost $1,510 for the Wilderness Society, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the National Audubon Society to file their 122-page protest, according to calculations made by WyoFile. The Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Earth Guardians filed other, shorter appeals.

The BLM dismissed the protests within four months.

Since then, however, Zinke has reduced from 30 days to 10 days the time citizens have to protest leases. “The previous policy resulted in delays by increasing the time required for sale notice posting,” Zinke‘s new leasing instructions read. He sparked a furor among his critics, a lawsuit and request for a preliminary injunction.

“We’re concerned the BLM is trying to rush the public through the oil and gas leasing process and deny them the opportunity to have meaningful on-the-ground input,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, one of the plaintiffs. “By shortening the public comment period you’re preventing the people with local … knowledge from sharing it.

“They are trying to keep everyone but the oil and gas industry from the public process of leasing,” he said. If decisions are made by states, as Barrasso has proposed, things would get worse.

In Wyoming, he said, there’s “not much of a pathway for the public to have a meaningful voice in the [leasing] process,” he said. “If anything the public should be given a lot more power and influence over what gets leased to these big energy corporations.”

Industry representatives see Zinke’s changes differently. “They still have an opportunity for comment,” Ester Wagner, vice president for public lands with the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said of the public.

Barrasso ESA amendments draw fire

When Barrasso released a discussion draft of ESA changes two weeks ago, he said the amendments would “increase state and local input and improve transparency in the listing process.” Changes also would “promote the recovery of species,” he said in a statement. The draft continues the work of Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who focused on the issue when he was chairman of the Western Governors Association.

Barrasso’s proposed amendments would give states more authority over wildlife, including leading an imperiled species’ recovery with a local state team. Before a species is protected by the act, the secretary of the Interior would have to list recovery and habitat goals and criteria outlining when protection would end.

“The Endangered Species Act needs to work better for species and for people,” Barrasso’s statement said. “We can’t just leave species on life support — they need to actually be recovered. My draft legislation is based on bipartisan recommendations from the Western Governors’ Association and has the support of over 100 stakeholder, conservation, and state organizations. The bill elevates the role that states and local experts will play in the recovery of species – not just their listing.”

Barrasso’s long list of supporters didn’t deter Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility from strongly challenging him. The group said draft amendments to the bedrock environmental act would strip authority from federal wildlife managers in parks, refuges and other federal lands, give states veto power over federal land acquisition and count foreign habitat toward threatened and endangered species reviews.

BLM employees survey sagebrush country in Sublette County while counting strutting greater sage grouse many of which live on BLM land in the West. Efforts to save the imperiled species have led to land-use restrictions that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke seeks to reduce. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

Barrasso would cut out the public in several ways, PEER’s Bennett said. A 90-day comment period for removing federal protections of threatened and endangered species is “a really short time for scientists and interested parties to comment on a delist proposal,” she said.

The public would be stripped of access to some documents otherwise available through the Freedom of Information Act, she said. The proposed amendments would limit court challenges.

“Information will not be visible to the public,” if the provisions become law, Bennett said. With Barrasso’s amendments, “things are done behind closed door in secret. You have no voice in the courtroom.

“Under this administration they’re giving greater voice weight to industry, states,” Bennett said. But in many instances, wildlife problems can’t be solved by one state alone. “Most, if not all, of our environmental problems don’t recognize political boundaries,” she said.

Little chance to work with powers that be

Some conservation groups see little opportunity to work with the administration or with the U.S. House of Representatives. “With bills like Rep. Cheney’s we are grateful for a more rational backstop – the Senate,” said Ani Kameenui, legislative director for the National Parks Conservation Association in Washington, D.C.

“All of these efforts certainly speak to a resistance to including the public, or certainly parts of the public,” she said. “There seems to be a theme here.”

She pointed to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke‘s review of national monuments before President Trump shrank them as further evidence. “There’s blatant disregard of public engagement when it does occur,” she said.

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Zinke received millions of public comments on the monument review, more than 95 percent of which advocated for retaining them intact, she said. “The response to over 2.5 million comments … was to illegally, arguably, reduce two of our national monuments’ lands protected by the Antiquities Act,” she said. “That calls into question how this administration [reacts] when they do reach out. Will they listen?”

For Weiss, of the Center for Western Priorities, there’s no hiding the administration’s agenda. “They just blow off public input on these major policy issues,” he said. “That’s been par for the course for Zinke’s entire time now. They just don’t care.”

The full name of New England PEER was corrected on July 17 – Ed.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. I believe our elected representative to the federal government should be state employees. They should draw their paychecks from the state of Wyoming, purchase their healthcare insurance and pay into the Wyoming state retirement system. I believe the citizens of Wyoming would have better oversight of their campaign financing and other activities like this that are backed by big business and are not in the best interest of the people of Wyoming. These elected representatives are up for re-election in November, Vote them out.

  2. Barrasso doesn’t even believe that citizens should be allowed to directly elect u.s. senators (i.e. him). He has previously supported repealing the 17th amendment.

    Why would he belive that they be allowed to have input on policymaking and decisionmaking that affects them?

  3. The only thing our delegation wants is our votes. They sneak into the state to get a photo p.o and then sneak out. They always give a canned response if you call or email them. Barrasso has been an embarrassment since he was appointed. One of the first things he tried to do was to get a bill Craig Thomas had sponsored, and it had support from the people involved, and get it over turned. Cheney is not from WY. She loved here a couple of years when her dad was running. She only does what her rich, i.e., not from WY, donors want.

  4. Great article! Surveys even in conservative western states show that the mass of the public supports ESA and rejects these attacks. But dominant coalition of ranchers-oil-gas continue to dominate western state politics even though their numbers are small. It’s time for the voters who care about the environment, public lands, and wildlife conservation to act or it will be too late.

    1. Supporting the ESA is something most everyone can get behind. I will admit however that once recovery goals are met then the animals should be automatically removed. For the ESA to work the goals shouldn’t constantly be moved further away each time the recovery approaches it.