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Dubious Advice: Bears Ears, National Park Campgrounds, and the Rise of Captured Committees

, Climate scientist | November 14, 2019, 5:09 pm EDT
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This summer President Trump issued a dreadful executive order to cut at least one-third of federal advisory committees and limit the total number to 350, a decision that has been heavily criticized as making “government stupid.”

Advisory committees are essential to fair and informed decision making. Federal policymakers regularly turn to expert advisors to help them determine government responses to complex challenges, from the outbreak of deadly diseases to environmental and national security threats. At least, that’s what should happen if these committees were being convened by a government interested in making science-based decisions with the public interest in mind.

Over the past month, we’ve seen the first wave of abandoned expert advice. Nearly a dozen committees across the government have now been disbanded, including committees that provided expert input on invasive species, maritime protection areas, and environmental policy and technology, among other things. My colleague Genna Reed has provided an insightful summary on the incredible (and incredibly bad) ramifications for science and policy from losing advisory committees, so I won’t belabor the point too much here.

But what about the panels that remain? Or those that were created under the Trump administration’s watch? What might the administration be doing to ensure they make recommendations that match the administration’s philosophy? One key tactic has been to stack committees with people who are more interested in profiting from our public lands than protecting them.

Among the panels that will continue into the future is the advisory committee for Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. It has been criticized for being skewed toward energy interests. Another committee, the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, which advised the National Park Service on public-private partnerships, recently released a list of recommendations that includes privatizing America’s national parks campgrounds.

The Trump administration created both committees. Are they really functioning in the best interest of the public rather than being manipulated for political gains?

The rise of captured committees

Let’s start by taking a look at Bear Ears National Monument, which the Trump administration radically diminished in size in 2017. In April 2019, the administration announced the creation of the Bear Ears National Monument Advisory Committee to help make decisions regarding the monument. At the end of September, the administration announced that the committee will continue into the future, which might be something of a surprise given that the administration is now crying poverty to excuse the axing of many other important groups.

While it might seem refreshing that the Bears Ears committee will remain, that same committee has also been subject to criticism for how its 15-person panel is stacked with people who fought against the monument when it was originally designated by President Obama and cheered when President Trump chose to reduce the monument in 2017. The administration’s pattern of behavior suggests the committee has been intentionally skewed toward people who have an interest in the energy rights of the surrounding lands near the monument and are unlikely to stand in the way of the administration’s gas and oil agenda

Another striking example of conflicted committees in action is the  “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, which had been advising the National Park Service on public-private partnerships on public lands and recently outlined a plan to privatize campgrounds at our national parks.

Established by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in July 2018, it was quietly disbanded on November 1. The committee had been comprised of multiple members who could profit from privatization, including the president of the RV manufacturer Newmar Corporation and at least three other concessionaires with potential conflicts of interest.

So why would people with such obvious conflicts be chosen for these important committee roles? The answer is that they represent the rise of captured committees, a new type of advisory committee designed to give the appearance of impartiality and independent review when they are actually disproportionately stocked with enablers of the administration’s political agenda.

You can’t disband science

To be clear: the Trump administration has had a significant and negative impact on the effectiveness of federal advisory groups and their ability to provide independent and impartial scientific and expert advice. The Bears Ears and outdoor recreation committees are just two examples of how the administration has stacked advisory boards with friends and sympathizers who will promote or tacitly support the administration’s agenda. All while dismantling committees the administration can’t taint.

And yet the disbanding of the outdoor recreation committee provides at least a small bit of good news. The National Park Service received significant public backlash regarding the committee and its recommendations; the outcry undoubtedly factored into the decision to eliminate the panel.

It’s clear our voices matter, so let’s continue to speak out and bring attention to the crucial role that independent advisory committees play in making fair and informed decision making that serve the public good. What’s more, we need more Congressional oversight to make sure these committees are kept honest, and we need amendments to the Federal Advisory Committee Act to eliminate these conflicts of interest and ensure that these expert panels are balanced.

Were you part of a committee that has been disbanded for possible political reasons? Your voices are needed now more than ever as a counterpoint to this administration’s continuing attacks on science. My colleague Genna Reed and I would love to hear from you—you can reach us by email ([email protected]g) or via Twitter.

And if you are not part of one of these groups please consider sharing this article with the hashtag #CantDisbandScience so that perhaps this can reach those who have been impacted by the decision.

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