Citizens left out of the process

Jones: Citizens were left out of E. coli decision CasperStarTribune 8/21/15

Raise your hand if you knew about the state’s new E. coli plan before it was finalized. The Casper Star-Tribune recently reported that the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, in one broad stroke, reclassified more than 76 percent of Wyoming’s streams from primary to secondary contact recreation. This means that roughly 88,000 stream miles are now allowed to have five times as much E. coli in them after very little public input from the people that use them most. This sweeping reclassification was years in the making but the fact is, almost none of us knew anything about it. Setting aside the merits of the decision, it’s apparent to the Equality State Policy Center that the DEQ failed to adequately reach out to the citizens and groups that would be most affected. While many conservation districts, which represent mainly agricultural users, were closely involved in the development of this plan, camping organizations, outfitter and guide services, and recreation groups were never notified. For example, in 2014 alone the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander led 121 expeditions into Wyoming’s mountains — and NOLS received no outreach from the DEQ. Gary Cukjati, Director of NOLS’ Rocky Mountain Branch, wrote to the EPA: “At no time…did DEQ contact NOLS, neither informing us of the existence of the process nor seeking comment on their decision, in spite of our being a significant commercial recreation user. It is our understanding that other outfitting operations were similarly unaware of the process.” He goes on to say that, as evidenced from the DEQ’s own record, “there was a notable lack of comments from the recreating public, who will ultimately bear the impacts of this decision.” What this means is, unless you stumbled upon one of two public notices buried in the classified section of this paper or caught one story in the Pinedale Roundup, you wouldn’t have known about the change. If it did cross your radar, you probably wouldn’t have understood the impact. For example, in a 30-second Wyoming Public Radio piece a DEQ spokesperson asserted the rule would only affect water bodies that flow occasionally. We now know that’s not at all the case; this decision reclassified scores of standing streams across Wyoming that are routinely used for recreation. A vigorous and open debate is what our country was founded on. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “…whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Our opportunity to participate in government and the management of our tax dollars, government agencies, and public assets is not and never should be limited to casting the occasional ballot. And the burden rightfully rests with elected leaders and public employees to deliberately cultivate a culture of openness and public access to government functions and decisions. It happens all too often that stakeholders and citizens are carelessly, and seemingly deliberately, left out of important decisions. Thankfully, in this instance, the DEQ has the opportunity to revisit this sweeping decision and re-open the process to allow for more comprehensive participation of Wyoming’s citizens and interested recreation groups. And we are calling on the DEQ to do so with earnestness and intent. The leaders we elect and employ must be thoughtful about public engagement. We shouldn’t have to be outraged or go to court to be heard. Good public policy should be crafted, debated, and enacted in the sunshine and this recent stream reclassification is no exception. Brianna Jones is the executive director of the Equality State Policy Center. The ESPC is a Wyoming fiscal and good-government watchdog organization.

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