The demise of the PAWG
Pinedale Anticline Working Group votes to disband
by Dawn Ballou, Editor, Pinedale Online! Ė Editorial
October 29, 2012
On Thursday, October 25, 2012, the members of the Pinedale Anticline Working Group voted to disband. The reason, apparently, is that the public just isnít interested in participating anymore. So the PAWG is dead, and itís the publicís fault.
If you were a newcomer into this saga, or you just took things being said at face value, you might actually believe this was true.
What a bunch of hooey.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took a great idea to generate true and meaningful public input, that was very successful and to this day has left a positive legacy for our community, and systematically squeezed every bit of life and energy out of it over the past few years.
The Pinedale Anticline Working Group was created by the BLM in 2004, chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) to provide balanced recommendations to the BLM on the development and implementation of monitoring plans, mitigation and adaptive management decisions pertinent to oil and gas activities in the Pinedale Anticline Project Area (PAPA) as described in the Pinedale Anticline Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement Record of Decision. Its ten members were appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. Members were appointed from the oil and gas industry, grazing, adjacent landowners, recreation, cultural resources, the environmental community, local governments, academia, and the public-at-large. Members served two-year terms and the appointment process took up to a year for each member.
For the first six years, the PAWG was assisted by and had oversight over several subcommittees called Task Groups, designated to address specific issues including wildlife and reclamation, air and water quality, transportation, reclamation, socio-economics and cultural/historical resources. Participation on many of these groups was vigorous, with some having as many as 15 members and many listening public at their regular meetings, all unpaid volunteers from the community donating their time and energy to dive deeply into issues related to resources being impacted by oil and gas development in the Pinedale Anticline. The BLM got what they said they wanted, huge public response and lots of input.
The public was happy they were providing meaningful input into the gas field activity in their backyard. The lawsuits stopped. Industry, environmental groups, government officials, resource managers and the public with passionate interest in the various resources were meeting regularly and talking about what was best for the resource and getting the job done. Hundreds of man hours of incredible expertise were donated by the public towards the effort. Industry willingly agreed to many modifications in their activities and invested in research, which amounted to doing things better and reducing negative impacts on the various resources.
The BLM then proceeded to spend the next several years finding reasons and excuses to discourage and do away with that public input. If you believe in the axiom "where there is a will, there is a way," the actions of the BLM clearly show they did not have the will to find a way to cultivate and continue that public input process into the PAWG.
In 2007, the BLM told the public they were not responsible for socioeconomic issues related to gas field development. The Socio-Economic Task Group was dropped, kicking out those members of the public who had been providing countless hours of unpaid volunteer research on impacts of gas field development on the local communities. Members of the Socio-Economic Task Group were publicly humiliated at several PAWG meetings by the BLM and told their services were no longer wanted or needed.
The BLM told the public that anyone appointed to the PAWG had to go through a months-long vetting process of their application before they could become members because they had a "direct line to give advice to the ear of the BLM". Yet in May of 2010, the BLM had no problem whisking in a private consultant, from California, to give them advice on how to remold the PAWG. This consultant, with a direct-line to give advice to the ear of the BLM, told the PAWG , "It is time for Task Groups to change." The BLM said the PAWG and Task Groups sometimes lacked focus on the topics different from what the BLM Field Manager wanted. The BLM said they only wanted input from the PAWG on topics the BLM wanted to discuss. They would decide what would be on the PAWG meeting agendas and what would be discussed were only items approved by the BLM Field Manager. The BLM pushed the PAWG "in a new direction to redefine their purpose."
The BLM contended more strongly their agency was not responsible for air quality, socio-economic, transportation or water issues because other federal and state agencies were the "lead agencies" for those. BLM claimed management responsibility only for wildlife habitat management, cultural/historic resources, and reclamation. The BLMís new plan for the PAWG involved eliminating all of the PAWG Task Groups. They wanted Water Resources, Wildlife, Air Quality, Reclamation, Socioeconomic, and Transportation Task Group public input to PAWG dropped. The functions of the Task Groups would be absorbed into the review duties of the ten PAWG members. The work being done by dozens of dedicated Task Group volunteers donating hundreds of hours of in-depth research into resource impact topics was being dropped squarely into the laps of the ten PAWG members, with full knowledge they would unlikely have the expertise, time, energy or desire to take over that workload. The BLM bluntly told the Air, Water, Socioeconomics and Reclamation Task Group people they "donít need to be meeting at this time as a Task Group." Four more public input groups with dozens of participants told to go away.
The BLM told the PAWG the Cultural/Historic Task Group would be disbanded and was the only public input expertise group that would be reincarnated. They said it would be "re-formed" as a new 10-member "sub group" with members serving 3-year terms (longer terms than PAWG members serve). Although former Cultural Task Group members applied to be on it, to our knowledge the BLM never responded to those applicants or created that new sub group. Cultural/Historic Task Group public input to PAWG and a dozen more dedicated volunteers offering public input gone.
The BLM moved the PAWG from monthly meetings to quarterly and expanded the meetings to two days in length "to delve more deeply into key topics." This step effectively created yet another huge hardship for private citizens and the media to take two full days out of their jobs and schedules to volunteer and participate in the PAWG process. The BLM lamented they just couldnít understand why public participation was dwindling at the PAWG meetings and people seemed less and less willing to participate in the PAWG process.
At multiple meetings, former members of the Task Groups spoke strongly in opposition to eliminating their input, citing their desire to continue to participate and explaining that a lot of good had come out of the Task Group process. The BLM held to their position those groups were straying in their direction and providing input on topics that was not asked for. When a PAWG member pointed out that the BLM could still keep the Task Groups and just give them more guidance and direction on how to focus their input, the BLM refused to find a way to remold that process. When there is no will, apparently there is no way.
Step by step over time, the BLM shut out the dedicated and willing volunteers and narrowed the discussion topics only to those on which the BLM Field Manager asked for input. He then purposely didnít ask for their input on anything substantive and scheduled most of the meetings so that the agenda item topics would only be informational with minimal action items. Apparently there were no longer any significant issues in the gas field the BLM wanted or needed public input on. By controlling the PAWG meeting agendas, the BLM was able to create meeting after meeting and field trips which took up a lot of peopleís time without providing opportunities for PAWG members to talk to resource people except for on the non-controversial topics the BLM allowed the PAWG to look at. When one controversial issue was brought up, the PAWG was told the BLM couldnít discuss the details with them.
This created a perfect scenario for BLM Pinedale Field Manager, Shane DeForest to strongly argue at the October 25, 2012 meeting there really wasnít a need for the PAWG anymore because they werenít providing meaningful input on much. In his attempt to defend the BLMís actions to terminate the Task Groups, DeForest leveled the very serious accusation that the law was being broken by what the Task Groups were doing. He implied these volunteers were doing something illegal. Their input was always totally non-binding to the BLM in any way.
To put more pressure on the PAWG group, DeForest told the members they needed to decide the future of the PAWG at that meeting because by the next meeting they wouldnít have a quorum to be able to decide anything. The BLM intentionally put the PAWG in the pressure situation of not being a complete board because BLM management didnít do their job of submitting the applications of new members to the Department of the Interior to replace the ones whose terms were expiring. With a nearly year-long process to appoint new members, the PAWG members were acutely aware that meant they were in for another year of attending more two-day meeting sessions with basically nothing to discuss or provide input on. After the eye rolls and sighs, DeForest disingenuously added, "What good is it for you to come to these meetings if you donít have anything to chew on?"
All the BLM needed was for the PAWG members to stew on all that over lunch and the handwriting was on the wall they were just minutes away from getting what they had been working on for years, the final death throes and dying gasps of the last dedicated die-hards in the PAWG public input process finally giving up the ghost and saying Ďenoughí.
After returning from lunch, the PAWG members gave in, but not without challenging the BLMís assertion of public disinterest. A PAWG member countered the charge the PAWG had become ineffectual by pointing out that the BLM Field Manager had full control over the meeting agenda topics and was purposely not giving them things to act upon. "How is it that you are now saying that PAWG is declining because you arenít getting public input when you have eliminated the Task Groups and refuse to accept input from the public unless it is an agenda item?" Another PAWG member added, "When PAWG started, they had a structure that involved Task Groups that had more public community members participating. The BLM eliminated the Task Groups. Shane has made it clear that the public was only to consider topics that you ask for as items for discussion. Isnít your question of the decline of public participation on PAWG a direct result of the BLMís own determined effort to eliminate ways for the public to participate in a meaningful way?"
Ultimately, the PAWG took a vote to disband, 7 for, 3 against. After a weak and unconvincing argument about it not being a consensus vote as required by the bylaws, the BLM accepted the decision by the majority vote.
Comments at the end included, "Well, thatís one less meeting to attend."
Mission accomplished BLM. It took years, but you finally killed off the pesky PAWG as a meaningful public input process, and did it with the amazing skill to absolve yourself of any of the apparent responsibility for their demise. The spin will no doubt be that the death of the PAWG is all the publicís fault because they werenít interested in participating anymore.
As things move forward now with the many supposed ways the BLM says the public can still provide meaningful input into the process, it should be recognized that providing opportunities to speak is not the same as truly listening to what the public has to say.