Ways and Means: Closed-Door Democracy A stealth effort to keep you in the dark By Carl Pope
The Sierra Club owes its success to honest, open, accountable government. Without it, we're just a handful of activists demonstrating on street corners a few steps ahead of the police—which, sad to say, is the current state of the environmental movement in much of the world.
It's no accident that one of the cornerstones of modern environmentalism is a law that promotes open government: the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA requires that major projects on federal land—like dams, construction, logging, and oil drilling—be disclosed in advance, that their potential environmental impacts be tallied, and that the public have an opportunity to respond in hearings or, if necessary, in court. The law has never been particularly controversial, but even so the right wing of the Republican Party has targeted it for elimination.
This campaign, like that against the Endangered Species Act (see "Decoder,"), is being led by Representative Richard Pombo (R-Calif.). As head of the House Resources Committee, Pombo put together a congressional task force, chaired by Representative Cathy McMorris (R-Wash.), to hold field hearings on "improving" NEPA. Meant to build a record of anti-NEPA sound bites, the hearings ended up reminding us what an open, honest public process is—by showing us what it is not.
The first session was held last spring in Spokane, Washington. The panel included ten industry representatives and local elected officials but only two environmentalists. From the organizers' point of view, it pretty much bombed. Nearly half of the regional politicians, it turned out, actually liked knowing what the federal government had in store for them. And even though the meeting was barely publicized, environmental groups brought out more than 150 people wearing stickers saying, "I Support NEPA: Democracy in Action."
Pombo's solution was to take the public out of the public hearings. The next meeting was moved from Fresno, California (pop. 427,000), to Lakeside, Arizona (pop. 4,055). A few days before the June event, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity were faxed invitations to participate—providing they could submit oral and written comments by the following day. Since they were unable to meet that deadline, no NEPA advocates appeared.
The next hearing, in late July, meant to cover Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, was relocated from Houston (pop. 1,953,000) to the remote east Texas town of Nacogdoches (pop. 30,000). Eight of the ten invited witnesses represented extractive industries like timber and mining. Members of the Club's Lone Star Chapter asked to testify but were refused. "We don't need to have ten people say nothing needs to be improved," task force chair McMorris told Grist magazine. "We want to hear from the people who have problems with NEPA." In a further attempt to avoid NEPA supporters, the next meeting, in August, was changed from a Saturday in Albuquerque (pop. 448,000) to a Monday morning in Rio Rancho, New Mexico (pop. 51,000).
By listening only to the opinions they wanted to hear, Pombo and McMorris missed out on the views of people like Evelyn Merz of the Club's Houston Regional Group. "NEPA allowed us to protect important green areas along Sims Bayou in Houston," she says. "Because of the NEPA process, we were able to reduce flooding and protect open space." Pombo, however, is intent on hobbling the act. He promoted broad exemptions from NEPA for oil and gas drilling in the new energy law. He won only a few in the end, but his desire to shut out the American public is clear—he doesn't need any public hearings.
Honest, open government is not just an environmental issue. It's an American value. Pombo's extreme, pro-secrecy agenda isn't popular anywhere in this country—not in Spokane and not even in Nacogdoches, where the panel was stacked with oil, mining, and timber interests because local public officials couldn't be counted on to hew to the anti-NEPA line. Pombo can only advance his agenda by having his task force skulk about the country, holding poorly publicized meetings at odd times with handpicked panels before audiences that aren't allowed to participate. It's not what you or I would call democracy.