And then there were four.
The citizens advisory group for the Bureau of Land Management’s district office in Farmington met in Taos Tuesday (July 10). Yet it’s hardly a functional group at the moment.
In total, 10 people are supposed to make up the Resource Advisory Council, or RAC, a group of people from Northern New Mexico who take concerns about public land management to the BLM and offer people an opportunity to speak their piece face-to-face.
Yet the Farmington RAC met without two of its members while another four positions are vacant. For the second time this year, the RAC met without a quorum, meaning they took no official votes but still listened to people’s issues and updates on the office’s major undertakings.
By the end of the day, Daniel Tso, a former Navajo Nation tribal councilman who lives four hours from Taos, was one of two people who stuck around to talk with the committee about his concerns about hydraulic fracturing in San Juan County.
While Tso said the Farmington RAC is “powerless because they have no quorum,” he still makes the drive because other venues for bringing tribal concerns to the federal government’s land managers exclude “the little people on the ground.”
Council members and local BLM employees seemed genuinely befuddled about why previous nominations still haven’t been approved by the top brass in the Department of Interior.
“We have no idea about the nominations process,” said Michael O’Neill, the council’s acting chair (he can’t be officially recognized in that role until a quorum votes on the matter).
The unapproved nominations is an issue that’s hasn’t seen any resolution in the six months since the group last met.
According to the Farmington BLM office spokesperson Zachary Stone, nominations for 2017 have moved up the ranks through the local BLM office but haven’t been approved by the Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has final authority over approving the council’s nominees.
Had those previous applications been approved, “we’d have a full RAC at this moment,” Stone said.
In January, Derrick Henry, a state-level BLM spokesperson, said the nominations had been approved by the New Mexico BLM office. From there, the nominations are supposed to go to the governor’s office and then the Department of Interior. Heather Swift, a spokesperson for the department, told The Taos News via email in January, “The state did not concur with the nominations received for the position.”
Neither Swift nor a spokesperson for the governor could be reached Tuesday to follow up on the 2017 nominations process.
The Taos News submitted a public records request to the BLM in March to obtain copies of the 2017 nominations for New Mexico’s RACs. There are three councils in addition to the Farmington group. The agency denied the request, withholding 15 documents totaling 92 pages, citing two exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.
“A final agency decision has not been made as to the selection of the Resource Advisory Council members for 2017; therefore, we are treating these as unsuccessful applicants,” the New Mexico office of the BLM wrote in a letter dated April 4.
Even though the previous nominations still haven’t been approved, the Farmington office opened the 2018 nominations window earlier this year but received no applicants, according to Stone. They’ll take another shot at it, though, seeking nominations again in the fall.
The four committee members at Tuesday’s meeting decided they would send a letter to Interior Secretary Zinke asking about the status of their nominations to the RAC. Though the Farmington BLM office helps coordinate the committee meetings, presentations and field trips, employees were not allowed to help draft the letter or let the committee use the office’s letterhead.
Given the myriad of challenges to understanding the RAC’s role and “doing our jobs,” as member Wendy Hageman said, those in the room Tuesday lamented the confusion surrounding the citizen council and its waning authority.
One congressional staffer at the meeting “heard the RACs weren’t going forward.”
“It looks like it was more than a rumor,” council chair O’Neill responded.
“The Trump and Zinke administration have consistently worked to silence the public and stifle engagement when it comes to public lands management,” said Rebecca Sobel, a senior campaigner with WildEarth Guardians, a Santa Fe-based environmental advocacy group.
“The Farmington RAC has been listening to the reasonable calls from community members to include the diversity of tribal and community voices vested in Greater Chaco protection. That this RAC is unable to take action in support of New Mexican communities is the fault of Zinke’s Department of Interior and more evidence of this administration’s unwavering support for an unsustainable fossil fuel industry,” Sobel said.