The BLM Colorado office received some 560 comments by Monday’s deadline in the case of supplementary rules the agency says it is proposing to better safeguard the public and reduce resource damage. BLM spokesman Steven Hall said the vast majority of comments consisted of form letters raising concerns that the rules infringe on First Amendment rights. 

Critics say BLM rules unduly limit free speech rights

Critics of proposed Bureau of Land Management rules in Colorado say they would limit free speech, and mark an escalation in efforts to squelch public comment also reflected by a shift to online oil and gas lease sales, like one occurring today. 

The BLM Colorado office received some 560 comments by Monday’s deadline in the case of supplementary rules the agency says it is proposing to better safeguard the public and reduce resource damage. BLM spokesman Steven Hall said the vast majority of comments consisted of form letters raising concerns that the rules infringe on First Amendment rights. 

Some of the proposed rules apply to less controversial matters, such as a prohibition against the use of exploding targets on BLM lands due to their wildfire threat, and against the burning of wood or pallets containing staples or nails because they can lead to flat tires. 

The proposals causing a stir include ones barring actions such as disrupting BLM meetings and gatherings, keeping people from entering or leaving BLM facilities, impeding BLM employees in carrying out their duties, and demonstrating outside designated demonstration areas, when the agency has issued a written finding that such an area needs to be established. 

Others would prohibit disorderly conduct and engaging in rioting or inciting five or more people to riot, and would bar people from remaining at BLM facilities past posted business hours unless authorized. 

“The BLM should be able to protect the safety of its employees and the public, but elements of this rule leave the agency too much latitude to silence peaceful speech and assembly critical of agency policies,” says one form letter sent to the BLM. 

The letter says the proposal would create too much room for officials to decide what obstructs or impairs a meeting, or when “to confine demonstrators to ‘designated demonstration areas’ out of the public eye.” 

“The proposed rule goes too far in letting the agency decide what forms of speech it wants to allow,” the letter says. 

Micah Parkin, executive director of the climate-action group 350colorado.org, said the proposed rules appear to be part of a larger effort by the BLM to limit free speech, also reflected by the shift to online lease sales. 

Such a sale is scheduled by the BLM in Colorado today, and will include more than 16,000 acres in Mesa County and nearly 2,000 acres in Garfield County. The Mesa County acreage generally is in Plateau Valley and the De Beque area. 

The BLM did a pilot online lease auction in Colorado in 2009, and then began holding more of them this year under new congressional authority. The BLM says online auctions will boost the opportunities for bidders to participate, which should increase bidding competition and the amount of public revenues that result. Opponents of the approach object to eliminating opportunities for protesting auctions held at a physical location. 

Parkin said protesters plan instead to show up at the BLM’s state office this morning to object to the lease sale. 

She finds the proposed rules particularly worrisome, saying they would criminalize free speech and assembly, making it punishable by fines and up to a year in prison, according to the BLM’s proposal. 

She said the proposal “is basically criminalizing everyday Americans who are trying to protect their air, water, land and climate for future generations.” 

“The (Obama) administration has sought and is seeking to limit, hinder, and now outright criminalize climate speech and demonstration,” activists representing dozens of organizations said in a joint letter sent Nov. 3 to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and BLM Director Neil Kornze. “The administration’s actions can only be understood as favoring corporate rights to pollute over our citizens’ rights to health and a livable planet.” 

Hall said the Colorado BLM proposal doesn’t pertain to free speech, but rather is designed to assure that the public can access public lands and public land offices to conduct business. 

“I think that’s the same goal that the National Park Service had when they adopted rules like this,” he said. 

Protesters showed up at BLM lease sales in Colorado last year and this year. Hall said it’s one thing to exercise free speech, but people have blocked access to buildings and sought to keep the lease sales from going forward. The new rules would allow the BLM to respond to concerns such as safety issues that can arise for BLM employees and members of the public. 

Even with online lease sales, people can continue to participate in the lease decision-making process by submitting comments at stages such as when resource management plans are developed by field offices, or when environmental assessments are done, Hall said. 

The new rules also would improve the BLM’s ability to respond to a situation like the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon last winter by armed militants. 

However, Hall said the rules weren’t drawn up in reaction to that situation or the recent lease protests, but have been under development for a number of years. 

The Western Energy Alliance industry group has endorsed online lease auctions due in part to safety concerns it says are posed by radical protesters. It also supports the proposed new rules. 

“The fact that BLM is compelled to issue these rules at all indicates a heightened level of concern regarding the behavior of certain malcontents at recent events, and speaks to the unruly tactics of the groups who organize these bad actors,” the group said in a letter to the BLM. 

Kathleen Sgamma, the alliance’s president, said in an email Wednesday, “Characterizing the proposed rule as ‘criminalizing’ free speech is just a hysterical reaction, and indicative of the mentality of groups that storm BLM lease sale venues and disrupt lawful activity. In fact, BLM has done nothing to squelch free speech. BLM employees have the right to do their congressionally mandated jobs without fear of harm or harassment.”

Dennis Webb

Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

blmfieldoffice

Free Range Report

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