Earthjustice notified the Bureau of Land Management today that its decision to refuse the public an opportunity to submit electronic comments via e-mail and facsimile on the proposed oil and gas development on the Otero Mesa is inconsistent with both federal law and the government's standard practices. On May 19, 2004, BLM issued a supplement to the proposed oil and natural gas development plan for Sierra and Otero Counties, NM, and informed the public of the agency's intention to accept only U.S. mail comments on the plan. In a letter addressed to Linda Rundell, director of the New Mexico BLM, Earthjustice, The Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and the Southwest Environmental Center informed BLM that refusal to allow electronic comments on the plan interferes with the public's rights under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the E-Government Act of 2002. Accordingly, the letter demands that the agency post a revised proposed rulemaking by Friday to open up the plan to broader public participation.
"Submissions of comments by electronic means provide a more efficient way to communicate with the government and promotes the widest possible public participation. The Internet has become a powerful tool in educating and empowering the public," said Earthjustice attorney Mike Harris. "We should be encouraging more people to pursue these avenues to make their voices heard, not making changes so that participation in government is more difficult.
"Once again our basic rights as Americans are being subjugated to the greed of the oil and gas industry. The BLM in New Mexico remains under intense pressure from the Bush administration to open Otero Mesa to full-scale development. As a result, the agency is creating ways to cut the public out, while opening the door to drilling," said Stephen Capra, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.
Otero Mesa is a delicate and unique desert ecosystem in southern New Mexico that includes wild land such as the Otero Mesa and Nutt desert grasslands. Environmentalists and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson have publicly denounced plans to open the area to oil and gas development.
"BLM's motive here is utterly transparent," said Harris. "The decision by the New Mexico State BLM Office to prohibit electronic submission of comments on the RMPA is tantamount to denying tens of thousands of New Mexicans and other Americans the right to openly express their opinions, views, and arguments about the Bush administration's decision to open up the precious Otero Mesa grasslands to oil and gas development. It's undemocratic and the people shouldn't stand for it."
The Forest Service last year became the target of a massive public uproar when it proposed a rule that would allow officials to ignore all public comments submitted through activism websites. Public outrage forced the service to abandon its plan.