OPINION: BLM Hiding Public Comments on Silverton Heli-ski Expansion
By Erick Brown
The San Juan Citizens Alliance was forced to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Friday, March 11th, after being denied access to public comments submitted to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Gunnison Field Office in response to their Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) on Silverton Guide’s requested heli-ski permit expansion.
Silverton Guides has requested an exchange and massive 24,000-acre expansion of access to public lands for their heli-ski operations, which led to a broad array of concerns expressed in the scoping comments submitted at the beginning of the process. Some of those issues were not addressed in the draft EA.
Public comments are routinely made public without FOIA requests. San Juan Citizens Alliance continuously works on and reviews public comments through various agencies across two states and at no time in recent memory has access to such comments been denied.
Somewhere between 300-400 public comments were submitted on the Draft EA, an unusually large number for a commercial recreational use permit. At a San Juan County Commissioners meeting on February 8, Gunnison Office Field Manager, Elijah Waters, stated that comments would be summarized, rather than released in full, to preserve privacy. This despite the BLM notifying those submitting comments to “be advised that your entire comment…may be made publicly available at any time.” Officials said the summary of comments would be available sometime after March 3, but have still not released anything.
“Public comments are intended to see the light of day. Without transparency of public comments, there can be no oversight that government agencies are taking our concerns into account when making decisions about our public lands,” says Tim Thomas who submitted comments on the EA.
“In ten years of working with public lands agencies, I’ve never before been forced to file a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) to access public comments that are ethically and legally destined for transparent public review,” says Jimbo Buickerood, Lands and Forest Protection Program Manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance.