News analysis
Participants Find 'RAC' Stands
For 'Resource Advisory Charade'

by Tim Findley
The Hatch [N.M.] Courier

When Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced the creation of his Resource Advisory Councils in 1995, he touted it as a means to consensus on reasonable range management.

"I agree 100 percent with the criticism that I grew up with in a ranching family, that I heard as Governor of Arizona, and that I sense today in the West," he told a teleconference sponsored by the BLM. "And that is that we really do have to find some way to discharge national responsibility, but in the context of genuine local participation."
So important would be the input of local advisors, that Nevada BLM Director Anne Morgan was characterized as foreseeing RACs as having "the big stick" in development of federal land policy in her state.
"When you ask for advice, you had better be prepared to take it," she said, just last July.
But the advice from Northeast Nevada, despite more than a year of consensus building on federal terms, wasn't what Morgan wanted to hear. When that RAC completed its final document late last year, Morgan refused to accept it, saying it would be "inappropriate" to submit to Secretary Babbitt.
The cross-section of local participants ranging from ranchers to Sierra Clubbers were thunderstruck with the realization that what Morgan and other BLM bureaucrats meant by "consensus" was actually surrender to federal terms. The king,



it seems, could not be called naked, even by his most loyal subjects.
"Disingenuous," a school teacher from Ely said of the outcome. "Deliberately set up not to work," said a producer's representative from Eureka. "A farce," said a rancher from Elko.
Appointed members of the advisory council and interested participants alike expressed a sense of betrayal and fraud at being led to believe that their recommendations would be seriously heard.
"It seems like what they really want is either a confrontation, or a rubber stamp to their own policy," rancher Harvey Barnes said bitterly.
Yet the BLM and Nevada Director Morgan have attempted to portray the serious divisions as a mere semantic difference in establishing standards and guidelines for multiple rangeland use.
Despite what they all agreed was months of sincere effort, the nearest to consensus that the Northeast Nevada RAC could meet was a statement that they were "progressing toward" a firm set of standards.
That was not enough for BLM Director Mike Dombeck, who


 
insisted he could not submit such uncertainty to the Secretary.
Then, with even that phrase gone and with virtually no time left before a deadline in February to introduce the Bureau's own "fallback" guidelines, State Director Morgan pronounced that she would make some "minimal changes" in their wording before submitting the RAC document.
In short, she would delete any reference to merely "progressing toward" the agreement Babbitt wants and add in reference to an "ecological process" nobody could explain. She and other BLM bosses, however, are perfectly aware that the Nevadans do not regard such duplicity as merely a matter of editing.
They see it, in fact, as part of the big lie repeated by Babbitt Deputy Maitland Sharp at a National Cattleman's meeting in Kansas City in January.
Sharp, who had personally been brought in to hear the objections of the Northeast RAC, told the cattleman that all three Nevada RACs had fully signed on board with BLM's standards and guidelines.
Harvey Barnes was in the audience, fuming, when Sharp said it.
In fact, even if the other two Nevada RACs -- one for the south of the state and one for the west -- were less determined in




their objections, many of them also have serious doubts about the process.
"I was looking for objective, measurable criteria," said Carl Fox, a former University of Nevada researcher who was on the western RAC. "I'm not sure, though, that the people in Washington understand the magnitude of the issue."
If Morgan had her problems with semantic meaning in the Northeast's draft document, it was in part because the mission set for the council members had its own, apparently intended, ambiguities.
Among them was the "ecological process" of range guidelines to protect water quality and endangered species. No one was sure what "ecological process" meant, except that it left a hole for BLM enforcement decisions big enough for an Abrams tank.
In fact, you hear that sort of vaguely threatening message from BLMers even in their model deal established last month with Colorado ranchers and pronounced as "a new way of doing business" by Colorado Governor Roy Romer.
"A lot of this will be voluntary," said Colorado's acting BLM Director Robert Abbey. "But where we don't get that cooperation, certainly we have the tools necessary to do things differently."
The "tools necessary?" Such,


 
for example, as expanded law enforcement powers under new regulations which are just the sort of thing members of the Northeast RAC don't want to be seen as endorsing.
The Northeast RAC, intended to represent the Nevada counties of White Pine, Eureka, Lander and Elko, was formed from a cross-section of interests, including ranchers, miners, enviromentalists, academics and the public at large. For some reason, a representative from Eureka was omitted and a woman who was a former schoolmate of Morgan was later appointed to the academic slot.
Nevertheless, there would be plenty of other public input, much of it from federal-wary Eureka, that broadened the scope of the RAC even more.
As with counterparts all over the West, appointed members and interested observers entered the process with some skepticism.
Even the Secretary of the Interior himself had said that, "advisory groups have been a dime a dozen for the last 50 or 60 years, everywhere you turn." This time, he promised, things would be different.
"Find consensus and we will use the advice," Babbitt said. "And my admonition to state directors will be to move in and work this out, express their concerns and in this interactive




process where you find consensus we're going to act exactly that way."
They used a "'90s, all-together-now" approach to the process, with the interests divided up into "pods" and given colored cards to express their "consensus." Professional "facilitators," squeaking out ideas with a grease pen on white paper (and incidentally forming a record), tried to guide them toward mutual understanding.
If it could be irritating and even insulting in its patronizing way, it was at least a way of avoiding disagreement and making progress.
"We labored and practically sweated blood for months on it," said Laura Etchegaray, a Eureka businesswoman who became the "ex-officio" representative from her normally ignored community.
"None of us wanted this to be another dog and pony show like what led to 'range reform,' and what we produced was clearly a workable set of standards and guidelines," she said.
Doug Busselman of the Nevada Farm Bureau agreed. "We had representatives at all three RACs," he said. "The Northeast clearly had the most public participation and I think produced the best document."
Even BLM District Representative Gene Kolkman said he found the work in the Northeast "productive" and "do-able."


 
But Busselman tries to be diplomatic in saying that it was mid-level policy wonks" in the BLM who fouled it up, and Kolkman says simply he does "understand how frustrated everybody is."
Frustrated, even angry, and maybe a little fearful.
"It was, frankly, a steep learning curve," said seventh-grade English teacher Caroline Hilton, who earned a place on the RAC with the unlikely credentials of being a Republican with membership in both the Sierra Club and People for the West.
"It comes down to bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. who have no people-contact changing the rules. We bent over backward to make it work. Why don't these boys in Washington come out and face the music?" she asked.
It was Hilton's own initiative that did get one of the "boys" -- Sharp -- to at least listen to the Council, if later to pretend he never heard their protest.
When her RAC was rejected in it consensus language of "progressing toward" standards, Hilton contacted the state BLM and asked that Dombeck himself meet with them and explain his objections to the language. A BLM official laughed at her proposal, scoffing that Dombeck could not be bothered. Indeed, State Director Morgan




herself had only met once with one of the Nevada RACs, and that because the western region meeting was held in her Carson City office.
But Hilton persisted, and won agreement from the Interior Department's Sharp to meet with them last September in Elko.
Once again, there was give and take. Sharp begged that politically, the Secretary could not accept an indefinite agreement on standards. Distrustful ranchers, although clearly saying it was "under protest," relented and agreed to remove that language in return for Sharp's acceptance of the rest of the document.
"We asked him, 'Are you speaking for the Secretary on this?' and he said, 'Yes, I'm speaking for the Secretary,' and so we said, 'Would he sign it to that effect?' and he didn't answer," remembers Etchegaray.
"He at least gave his word," said Hilton.
But within two months, their document was being re-written again by State Director Morgan to make it more "acceptable."
"I knew what I was in for from the start," said Wells rancher Steve Boies, "but now I see that first of all it was designed to fail and that what it really meant was consensus-making from the top down, rather than the bottom up."
Boies is among the


 
RAC members who have genuine fears about what even their schoolteacher members perceived as a means, ultimately, to "find new ways to harass grazers."
"What I don't want is standards and guidelines with my name on it that's going to put somebody out of business," Boies said.
"Damn right you feel threatened when something like this goes on," said rancher Harvey Barnes. "People out in the rest of the country aren't aware of what's going on."
And what is going on?
In Northeast Nevada, at least, there is another consensus among RAC members, including even local BLM officials. It's that grazers especially are being set up for a confrontation in which they will be blamed.
"I get the impression that they [in Washington] think there's a bogeyman behind every bush out here," said schoolteacher Hilton.
"Absolutely, they want to provoke something," said businesswoman Etchegaray. "They don't understand that people here




have too much to do to go around threatening public employees."
"It's troubling when good people are frightened for their livelihood," said district BLM official Kolkman.
Despite repeated phone calls to his Washington office, Sharp was unavailable for comment to The Courier. "In a meeting," they said.
The "grass roots" process so celebrated by Babbitt -- as ending what he called, "this intense antagonism" over public lands -- apparently does not include "open communication" from Washington.
But in Northeast Nevada, no matter what the Interior Secretary may claim as his success in bringing people together, there is very little doubt about how far they can trust the sincerity and integrity of Washington.
"They didn't count on the honor and dignity of the people of this state," said Laurel Etchegaray, who sees it likely to end in court. "It will be a winnable fight, or no fight at all. This is not Bosnia."


Want to share your opinion? Electric Nevada's comment page is open!

Back to Electric Nevada's Front Page