Guest Commentary

The Forest Service needs to let the people speak out at true public hearings

My memories of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management public hearings are exiting. When called upon to speak at a wolf-reintroduction hearing, a fellow simply belted out a mournful howl. The off-road-vehicle crowd was noted for showing up in large numbers to desert-dunes and ORV hearings in T-shirts depicting splashy, vibrant visions of vehicular nirvana.

What these and other hearings had in common was this: a small index-sized card. As one entered the meeting hall the federal agency had rented for the night, potential speakers would seek out this card. Your heart pounded; a little sweat would start to bead on your forehead. Do you or don't you? Yes, yes you will. You must. You filled in your name and address and checked off "yes."

You would be called upon to speak out that night. What a thrilling sensation!

At one particularly charged-up hearing, I was seven months pregnant as I waddled up to the microphone. As I faced some particularly belligerent yahoos in the audience, I would not back down. This was democracy in action. This was what our heritage as Americans was all about. This was an experience I would use to teach my daughter about civic duty.

In fact, only in America could a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) hearing by the Forest Service or BLM transform from a dry "comment period" on "environmental-impact assessments" into a first-class, town-hall-style open public discussion. And were those rooms packed! This was public land at stake, after all, and the public must be heard. Costumes, signs, tables with literature, songs and the electricity of excited and engaged citizens tangibly tingled the air. No matter what "side" you were on, you were on.

So you can imagine my concern when I attended the March 18 Coronado National Forest NEPA hearing on the Rosemont mine proposal for the Santa Rita Mountains, in Tucson. After the birth of our daughter, my husband supported my decision to take a few years off, and I took a break from several hearings. On March 18, I was in for a shock: There would be absolutely no public discussion. There would be no standard Forest Service slide-show presentation to educate and inform before taking questions. When I raised my concerns about this, I was told to fill out the comments sheet and turn it in. And that was that.

At the Green Valley hearing on March 19, the Save the Scenic Santa Ritas group was not even allowed to set up a table.

Finally, at the Patagonia hearing on March 20, the police swooped down on the predominantly senior-citizen crowd. A 70-year-old gentleman raised himself on the stage and asked for a chance to speak. The chief of police immediately approached him. The Forest Service hastily packed up their displays and rapidly left with the Rosemont mine representatives. Soon, a number of local police, sheriff's deputies and Border Patrol agents arrived at the school responding to a call of "civil unrest."

Well, I filled out my sheet, and here's what it said:

"NEPA scoping hearings must again allow for ample and generous opportunities to speak publicly. Fair and democratic due process of changes occurring on public land must allow for open and public accountability that mere written comments cannot provide on their own. Media must also be there to record all sides of issues raised, and the Forest Service itself must provide a general presentation to the public. Federal political leaders recognize the importance of town-hall-type meetings, and the Forest Service must again remember and implement the intent of democratic public meetings: the opportunity for open and fair debate."

I am awaiting the return of the index card. I will check off "yes" with my daughter at my side. I will look at her and say, "This is what democracy looks like."

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