One out of every four acres in Oregon is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The federal agency uses local groups of citizens to help make certain decisions about how money is spent and how the land is managed.
But changes in policy under the Trump administration have disrupted the work of these groups. In some instances, those changes are effectively halting their work, changing their makeup and altering the missions they’re tasked with.
And in some cases, the shifts have jeopardized millions of dollars in federal spending in local communities.
There are six of these groups, generally called Resource Advisory Councils – or RACs – working behind the scenes in Oregon.
The three BLM RACs operating west of the Cascades haven’t met in more than two years.
The lack of meetings means $4.2 million in funding for local conservation, recreation and educational projects is just sitting in the bank waiting to be authorized. And the clock is ticking on a deadline that will return any unallocated funds to the U.S. Treasury.
Because of their advisory nature, RACs can only make recommendations to BLM leadership. But the agency takes those recommendations seriously, said Jerry Magee, who recently retired after working for the BLM for more than four decades. During his years in the Pacific Northwest, he interacted with several advisory councils and saw their benefit.
“More heads are better than fewer in terms of coming up with creative solutions,” he said. “There are some very sticky issues in the Steens [Mountains] that have been resolved by creative solutions of the advisory committee, and I don't think BLM would come to those solutions by itself.”
Despite their varying goals, the councils are designed to represent a wide group of local stakeholders, ranging from outdoor recreation advocates to environmental organizations to elected officials. At a minimum, three members from each category are required for the groups to meet.
“This is a really valuable tool for the public to provide input straight to the BLM,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director with the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands advocacy group based in Denver.
In May 2017, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke suspended the work of more than 200 Resource Advisory Councils and other similar committees across the country. The Interior Department initiated a review of the “charter and charge” of each. It said in a statement the larger purpose was “restoring trust in the Department’s decision-making.”
As part of the administration's review, new charters have been issued to define the mission of the RACs and most have been reinstated. But an analysis by the Center for Western Priorities released in October found that more than half of those groups still haven't met.
“Almost three years into the Trump administration and I think there's a strong trend of ignoring public input in land management decisions,” Prentice-Dunn said.
Three of Oregon’s RACs – the John Day-Snake RAC, Southeast Oregon RAC and the Steens Mountain Advisory Council — are active again.
The RACs for the coastal, northwest and southwest areas of Oregon have yet to resume meeting.
The RACs Of Western Oregon
In Western Oregon, the Resource Advisory Committees were formed primarily to recommend how to disperse certain funds connected to the Secure Rural Schools Act. The Act sends money to timber counties in the West as a way of softening the blow of declining logging revenues on public lands. These "Title II" funds, which the RACs advise on, are specifically earmarked for the "protection, restoration, and enhancement of fish and wildlife habitat" or otherwise connected to federal land.
Coos County Commissioner Melissa Cribbins served as chair of the Coastal Oregon RAC before her appointment to the group expired in Summer 2017 – just a few months after the meetings were suspended by Zinke.
She said the Coastal RAC recommended many “great projects,” providing local jobs and environmental restoration.
“I was honestly surprised when the Department of Interior stopped reappointing the RACs and said that they wanted to take a look at how the process was working. I feel like it gives local people a chance to have a voice in how those federal lands are managed and that's been a big issue for rural Oregon for a long time,” Cribbins said.
“We lost a lot,” said John Omlin, co-owner of Valley Powersports in Eugene, who served as an off-road vehicle recreation advocate on the Northwest Oregon RAC.
The RAC was suspended about a year into Omlin's three-year term.
“We were actually a highly functioning group … Everyone was really looking forward to continuing on as RAC members because we all got along well. We negotiated well together and everyone felt good about how the money was allocated — that it got spread around equitably,” he said.
All three groups are currently struggling to get a full slate of approved participants and start meeting again.
The Coastal Oregon RAC only has three active members, with 12 more nominees currently being vetted by the BLM.
The Southwest Oregon RAC has nine active members, but it does not have enough representatives in each stakeholder category to be able to meet. Five more nominees are in the process of being vetted.
The Northwest Oregon RAC currently has just enough members to start meeting again, but no additional nominees are currently in the pipeline.
The vetting and approval process for new members has been slow, as acting BLM head William Perry Pendley acknowledged at a panel discussion at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in October.
“I'd like to staff those RACs simply because … they provide contributions, information from people on the land who can give us information that we need,” Pendley said. “I'm frustrated, too, but we're going to try to do better and get that complete.”
Mission And Membership
In addition to the slow pace of committee member sign-offs by the Interior Department, there also appears to be a shift in the kinds of groups that are represented when members are approved.
In the past, staff and members of local and national environmental groups – like Surfrider Foundation, Sierra Club, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Oregon Wild – were represented on the councils. These groups have been highly critical of the Trump administration's environmental policy and have vanished from the current RAC membership in Western Oregon.
Now members of the required “environmental organizations” category on the Northwest Oregon RAC include one person active in recreational mining groups and another employed by the Oregon Hunters Association.
The Southwest Oregon RAC’s environmental representatives include a sawmill owner involved in a forest restoration group and someone who described himself at a RAC meeting in 2015 as a “forester wannabe” and a small woodland owner.
Jerry Magee said over his four decades working at the BLM, he saw many administrations come and go – and he’s not surprised that the RAC system is undergoing some changes.
“There's two different forms of collaboration: There's one administration collaboration and then there's the next administration's collaboration. And the other is not considered collaboration by the next one,” he said.
But for Chandra LeGue of Oregon Wild, the shift in membership does raise concern.
LeGue served on the Coastal Oregon RAC from 2015-17, but was not reappointed. She said the shift in membership wouldn’t matter that much if the RACs were only recommending funding for restoration projects.
“But if they’re advising on all the other policies that are part of the new charter, [the lack of stakeholder representation] could be problematic,” she said.
And that appears to be the RACs' new direction. During the suspension of the groups, the Trump administration rewrote the charters of Western Oregon and many other councils.
The previous charter for the Coastal RAC gave council members the ability to weigh in on issues of local concern, regardless of the priorities of the administration. The new charters instruct the councils to recommend ways to meet specific Trump administration goals, like increasing access to hunting and fishing, deregulation, improving the development of mineral resources, aggressively addressing wildfire and increasing “energy, transmission, infrastructure, or other relevant projects while avoiding or minimizing potential negative impacts on wildlife.”
But just how significant the changes in the mission of the RACs are depends on who you ask.
“It’s a massive change,” said Prentice-Dunn of the Center for Western Priorities. “[The old charters] didn't have any of this language about implementing Trump administration executive orders and so forth. And so now it seems like they want to turn these into a rubber stamp instead of a local advisory group,” he said.
But Megan Harper, the BLM coordinator for the Coastal Oregon RAC, said the changes were not substantive.
"It just gave them, I think, a broader range and more topics to provide us the advice on,” she said.
Money In The Bank
Local BLM staff are facing a deadline.
The most central task of all three Western Oregon RACs is to recommend how Secure Rural School Title II funds should be spent in Oregon counties.
“That was the power … we were keeping the money locally. It was going back into some really good things,” said former RAC member John Omlin.
But because the councils have not met under the new charter for more than 2.5 years, the funds have not been distributed.
The BLM said there is currently $4.2 million in the bank waiting for RAC action. And under the 2018 congressional re-authorization of the Secure Rural Schools program, the RACs have until September 2020 to initiate funding for local projects.
“After that the funds go back to the treasury,” said Harper.
Although that deadline is nearly a year away, several pieces have to fall in place for the money to be allocated.
First, BLM has to put out a call for project to the community, something the Coastal Oregon RAC didn’t do while the Council was not meeting.
“We like to know that there's going to be a meeting that's going to be happening within a short amount of time before we'll call for those projects,” Harper said. “We'd hate to have people put together the project application — it can be rather lengthy and in-depth - and then not have a meeting.”
Then the RACs have to meet to figure out which projects to recommend. Two of the three Western Oregon RACs currently don’t have enough members to hold a meeting.
Jennifer O’Leary is BLM coordinator for the Northwest Oregon RAC, which does have enough members currently approved. She said she is trying to schedule a meeting this coming winter, but the low membership makes the job challenging.
“We will need all current nine numbers of the Northwest Oregon RAC to be able to attend a meeting to be able to have a quorum for us to be able to meet, and for them to be able to make recommendations,” she said.
O’Leary said Title II funds will “absolutely” be on the agenda when the group does meet.
But for the other RACs, the fate of those Title II funds is somewhat out of local BLM control. Staff members are trying to figure out what to do if the deadline can’t be met. For now, they’re waiting on the Interior Department to approve enough new members to move forward with their work.
“It'll be exciting to get those nominations back and be able to get back in the saddle, so to speak.” BLM’s Harper said. “I think everyone is eager to get this Title II money spent and get some projects on the ground.”