"The first thing the agency does is sort all the comments into two piles. One pile is for comments that express concerns, feelings or opinions, and the other much smaller pile contains comments that specifically detail where the Bureau of Land Management’s Environmental Impact Statement has contradicted itself, made mistakes, made unjustified statements, wrong conclusions or ignored available science. The first pile is stored but gets no further attention. The BLM can ignore those comments. You want your comment to be in the second pile, which are the ‘substantive’ comments. By law, the BLM must respond to ‘substantive’ comments.” This was the advice of Joanne Spivack as she spoke at a workshop hosted by the Dona Ana Soil and Water Conservation District and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.
The purpose of the workshop was to educate attendees about the National Environmental Policy Act process and how it works, and how to write substantive comments as they reviewed the TriCounty Draft Resource Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement. This EIS was prepared by the Bureau of Land Management and released this past April. When the BLM makes a decision based on this EIS, the result will be a new RMP. It will be the operating manual for the next 15 to 20 years, guiding the BLM in land-use decisions across 2.8 million acres of surface land and over 4.0 million acres of subsurface mineral rights. This new RMP combines and replaces two management documents; the current RMPs for White Sands and the Mimbres.
At stake are grazing rights, access to both ranch infrastructure and watersheds for flood management, and wildlife management issues that will affect ranchers as they utilize their BLM permitted lands. That is why it is so important that your comments meet the BLM standard of “substantive.” Spivack has a long history of commenting on RMPs through her involvement with the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance. Her organization fights to keep access to public lands open as the United States Forest Service attempts to reduce access by banning motorized use from over half the legally open roads and trails. Currently NMOHVA is in the process of suing the USFS over road closures in the Santa Fe Forests. This is only the third lawsuit in the entire county over a Travel Management decision. The USFS issued its Travel Management Rule in 2006 and it affects all national forests. She shared her experiences and explained the comment process to attendees.
Public participation is required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the most critical time for the public is in the formal comment period. If you want to protest the eventual BLM decision, you only have “standing” (the right to protest) if you have submitted comments. According to the Land Use Planning Handbook, a recently released publication by the BLM, “Substantive comments are those that reveal new information, missing information, or highlight flawed analysis that would substantially change conclusions.”
Comments should be clear, concise and question, with reasonable basis, the accuracy of information in this initial (draft) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). They should cite specific page numbers, chapter and section of the document and provide alternative science, methodology or predicted impact.
Spivack reminded commenters that “Your goal is to identify ‘process errors’, which means the process of how the EIS does its analysis. That’s why writing a comment voicing your opinion is not effective. A substantive comment identifies ‘process errors.’ Those are the errors showing that the EIS is inadequate, illogical, inconsistent or incomplete. After the comment period, the BLM is supposed to revise the EIS to correct errors identified by the public, then they issue the revised EIS (Final EIS) and a decision. If the Final EIS does not correct the errors, then the commenter has standing to file a protest based on a substantially incorrect EIS. The protest is decided by the BLM office in Washington. If they reject the protest, the commenter can then file a lawsuit.
The EIS should show not only the environmental impacts to natural resources, but also how the decision will affect the human environment which primarily means social and economic impacts.
Examples of substantive comments include: “Fails to show social impacts,” “Fails to disclose the economic value of grazing,” “Not supported by data,” or “Makes contradictory statements.” Non-substantive comments are opinions such as; “It will hurt my business,” “I believe this is the wrong way to go,” “I’ve been taking care of this land for generations.”
Currently the commenting period for the TriCounty RMP/EIS has been extended to September 12 and comments can be emailed to NM_LCDO_Comments@blm.gov or mailed to BLM, attn: Jennifer Montoya, 1800 Marquess Street, Las Cruces, NM 88005.