This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
There is a certain sense of irony in the recent federal court ruling out of Wyoming that Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar had misstepped when he limited "categorical exclusions," not because the limits were inappropriate but because the public had not been allowed to comment on Salazar's decision.
A categorical exclusion is a bureaucratic tool used by the Bureau of Land Management to more-expeditiously approve drilling operations without a full environmental review all without public comment on the effects that development might have.
I have long opposed categorical exclusions, in large part because they exclude the level of public participation that is essential to sound environmental policy.
I believe the best decisions are those that bring together all stakeholders to resolve concerns wildlife advocates about diminished habitat, air-quality experts with insights into dust pollution and ozone, wilderness advocates, those with public access concerns, and archaeologists, like myself, who are worried about the long-term effects of development on irreplaceable cultural resources.
During the past 20 years of my own archaeological research in Nine Mile Canyon, I have watched as the canyon has evolved from a sleepy backwater with only a handful of hardy ranchers into an industrial zone with a steady stream of heavy trucks hauling drilling rigs onto the plateau to tap immense reserves of natural gas.
Yes, the canyon, renowned the world over for its tens of thousands of ancient rock art images, looks and feels dramatically different, for both good and bad.
The canyon is noisier, dirtier and busier than ever before. But the road is wider and safer, steps have been taken to eliminate the persistent dust problem that has plagued the quality of the rock art images, and the canyon is more accessible to visitors of all ages who seek to enjoy the archaeological treasures there.
In 2010, we and others in the conservation community signed a landmark agreement with the BLM and the Bill Barrett Corp. that lays out a long-term strategy to minimize the impacts of the Barrett development on cultural resources in Nine Mile Canyon.
And since that time we have worked closely with the corporation and other private land owners in the canyon to see that the agreement is implemented.
No lawsuits have been filed or even threatened, and to my knowledge there have been no delays due to environmental opposition.
Why? Barrett has willingly engaged in conversations with all parties about how to resolve our concerns, while still pursuing its own corporate interests.
And therein is the lesson learned: Because of an open process that invites public participation, relationships were built, trust was established and the project moved forward.
It was a testament that environmental protection and development interests are not mutually exclusive, that responsible energy development can also balance the needs of other concerns.
A categorical exclusion circumvents that public process, as it did when the BLM first proposed exclusions for the plateaus above Nine Mile Canyon and we and others were not allowed to comment on the potential impacts.
We believe that Secretary Salazar was correct in ordering the BLM to use the tool more judiciously.
Categorical exclusions should be used cautiously and only in the rarest of circumstances. As noted in a report by the Government Accountability Office, the BLM had been abusing the exclusion process, and there remains the potential that it could happen again.
It is clear that the BLM has discretion to continue to limit categorical exclusions, and I hope agency officials will take a deep breath, think twice and solicit guidance from those of us most familiar with those areas at risk.
We encourage Secretary Salazar to embrace the same openness in the public process. The best policies demand it.
Jerry D. Spangler is executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, an organization based in Ogden that collaborates with government, industry and conservation interests to preserve Utah's cultural heritage.