April 03, 2020

Udall, Wyden, Merkley Urge Interior Department to Suspend Policy Actions Unrelated to COVID-19 Response

Department of Interior should focus on response to COVID-19 in communities across America, not push through policy with limited public input

Department’s obligation to undertake Tribal consultation for decisions cannot effectively take place when Tribal governments are responding to the public health emergency

WASHINGTON– U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, along with Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt urging the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) to immediately suspend any policy proposals or actions unrelated to the COVID-19 emergency that require a public comment period until the threats of COVID-19 have subsided. 

The senators sent the letter as New Mexicans and Americans across the country are focused on the safety and well-being of themselves and their families during this global crisis, meaning public comment periods on policy actions at this time cannot fully reflect public opinion and meaningful participation.

In New Mexico, DOI oversees approximately 27 million acres, about 34 percent of the state’s total lands. Just last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within DOI, entered into a public comment period for the sale of federal public land in Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties while COVID-19 confirmed cases have jumped to 403 with 7 confirmed deaths across the state.

“As the country is addressing the public health emergency of COVID-19, the agencies within the Department of Interior should be focused on how to bolster the response to COVID-19 in communities across America, not push through policy with limited public input,” the senators wrote. “Americans should not be required to find and comment on the Department’s rule making, while they are experiencing major disruptions with childcare, employment, and safety.”

“The Department is also obligated to undertake tribal consultation for many of its decisions, a process which cannot effectively take place when Tribal governments are responding to the public health emergency. Under these circumstances, any policies put forward by the Department would not have the appropriate level of public input and the validity of such policy would be brought into question,” the senators continued.

Last week, Udall and the entire New Mexico delegation sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt asking for the Department of Interior to extend the public comment period for the joint Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the area around Chaco Culture National Historical Park by at least 120-days due to the limited ability of the public to participate during the COVID-19 pandemic emergency.

 A full copy of the letter can be found here and below: 

Dear Secretary Bernhardt:

We write to urge the U.S. Department of Interior to immediately stop pursuing any policy proposals or actions unrelated to the COVID-19 emergency that require a public comment period until threats of COVID-19 have subsided.

As the country is addressing the public health emergency of COVID-19, the agencies within the Department of Interior should be focused on how to bolster the response to COVID-19 in communities across America, not push through policy with limited public input. Americans should not be required to find and comment on the Department’s rule making, while they are experiencing major disruptions with childcare, employment, and safety. The Department is also obligated to undertake Tribal consultation for many of its decisions, a process which cannot effectively take place when Tribal governments are responding to the public health emergency. Under these circumstances, any policies put forward by the Department would not have the appropriate level of public input and the validity of such policy would be brought into question.

The Department is currently considering over 70 policies that have a significant impact on public lands, wildlife protections, and oil and gas leases. In light of this global pandemic, the Interior Department has taken important steps to address the issue, including pausing all Resource Advisory Council meetings. However, we urge the Department to take the next logical step, which is to suspend any of these policy decisions and focus on addressing the response efforts to COVID-19. 

Sincerely,