"Size of protestits like deciding, well, Im going to decide policy based upon a focus group." Thus spake President George W. Bush, reacting to Februarys huge street protests against war with Iraq. Dissenting voices carry little weight with the Bush administrationeven when they represent the popular majority.
Consider the 360,000 public comments sent to the Interior Department about snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. Four out of five wanted them banned. The Bush administration not only okayed their continued use, but increased the number allowed.
Or consider the 2 million people who wrote to the U.S. Forest Service regarding protection of wild, unroaded areas, 95 percent of whom were in favor of it. The timber industry claimed that public opinion had not been sufficiently sampled, and a sympathetic Idaho judge concurred. His decision was overturned in December 2002 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appealsin part because of the enormous number of comments the Forest Service received.
In Utah, the Bureau of Land Management wants to open 2 million acres of the spectacular Book Cliffs regionincluding many potential wilderness areasto oil and gas exploration. The BLM received fewer than 200 comments in favor of the project, 25,200 opposed, and approved it anyway.
The official purpose of public comment is to gather new information and to gauge the level of public interest. Federal agencies are not obligated to act based on the number of comments they receive ("Thats why we go to court so much," says Sierra Club legal director Pat Gallagher), but they are supposed to take it into account.
The Forest Services solution, however, is to try to do away with public participation as much as possible. The agency wants to rule out public review of 15-year management plans, of any "fuels-reduction" logging project, and of any cut smaller than 250 acres. In those cases when the agency does consent to hear from the people, it proposes that "form letters, check-off lists, pre-printed postcards, or similar duplicative materials will not be accepted as objections."
"Its amazing how brazen the administration is in its disdain for the public," says Club conservation director Bruce Hamilton. Whether or not the Bush administration wants to listen, he says, the Sierra Club will continue to weigh inand to publicize the deeds of those who ignore the peoples will.