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Groups Ask to Extend Public-Comment Periods Due to Shutdown

Groups say blocking public access to government agencies' websites violates the core principles of public participation outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act. (criene/Twenty20)
Groups say blocking public access to government agencies' websites violates the core principles of public participation outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act. (criene/Twenty20)
December 28, 2018

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Conservation groups are keeping a watchful eye on federal agency websites during the government shutdown and say some pages have been taken down, at agencies that include the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service Planning and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The concern says Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, is that those sites are key to accessing information and ways for people to comment on environmental decisions.

"With this shutdown, the public has been blocked from accessing the information it needs to participate in the planning processes, and they have pending comment deadlines," says McKinnon.

McKinnon says his group also questions the motives behind taking down the web pages, and has requested in writing that the administration extend the public-comment periods because of the government shutdown.

McKinnon says shutting down websites and public-comment portals isn't consistent with federal policy. He cites an Interior Department post that indicates employees shouldn't be updating pages during a shutdown period, but clearly states that websites should remain online.

"The standing policy for the Department of the Interior is that these websites are supposed to remain active during shutdowns," says McKinnon. “They have a policy that's very clear. It suggests that there was a deliberate effort here to actually take these sites offline."

North Carolina groups say last year's proposal to reduce protections for endangered red wolves as an example – as more than 100,000 people commented in favor of keeping strong federal protections in place. The decision was delayed in November. The Wildlife Network conservation scientist Ron Sutherland, who helped count public comments for the red wolf protection, has been watching during the shutdown with concern.

"This is a democracy and the public has a chance to weigh in on these issues, like red wolf conservation, and one of the only ways they can weigh is through these public comment periods," says Sutherland. “That's why they were set up. People are very enthusiastic about doing that. It makes them feel like they are actually contributing to public policy."

Groups are asking the administration to immediately reactivate the Interior Department's portals and extend the dates for current public-comment periods.

Antionette Kerr, Public News Service - NC