If the Bureau of Land Management ran an aquarium, it would screen the fish from view on the theory that clear glass posed an unreasonable threat to their privacy. That would be silly, of course. But it’s no sillier than the agency’s handling of the “public” process by which it seeks to resolve a problem known as a trespass on property it manages about 20 miles east of Prineville.
The trespass, as explained by Bulletin reporter Stephen Hamway, came to light almost a decade ago, shortly after Chuck McGrath and Jennipher Grudzien of Bend-based Grace Bio-Labs bought a parcel covering several hundred acres northeast of Prineville Reservoir. In doing some mapping after their purchase, the couple apparently discovered that a chunk of their new land actually belongs to the BLM, including a piece with a house on it.
The BLM wants to do right by the public, which owns the land, and McGrath and Grudzien, who seem to be in a pinch through no fault of their own. To that end, the agency issued a letter in June seeking public input on a handful of potential solutions. Problem is, the letter, ironically addressed “Dear Interested Public,” leaves its intended audience completely in the dark about key information. It doesn’t identify the would-be owners of the property in question. Nor does it indicate the exact location of the property in a manner a non-expert can understand. Instead, it refers to the site as follows: “18 acres in Township 16 South, Range 18 East, Section 8, SENW and NESW.”
The scoping letter also points to an enclosed map, which did not appear on the agency’s website until The Bulletin brought it repeatedly to the BLM’s attention. The map is far from detailed, but does contain enough information for a determined person with access to Crook County’s taxation and assessment website to identify the plot in question and its owners.
The BLM explains its opacity in its response to a Freedom of Information Act request for public comments responding to the agency’s scoping letter. In early October, the BLM provided two comment letters, which it redacted prior to release. Among the blacked-out information is the identity of the couple at the center of the trespass. To justify the redactions, the BLM points to a FOIA exemption that allows the agency to withhold “personnel and medical files and similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
It takes some tortured reasoning to conclude that disclosing the names of people who seek to acquire public land by means of a public process is similar to disclosing medical and personnel files. But the BLM is up to the challenge. In determining whether to cough up the property owners’ names, the BLM explains, it must “balance the privacy interest that disclosure would affect against any public interest in the information.” And because, in the BLM’s view, harm to privacy in this case exceeds the public’s interest in disclosure, the public gets bupkis.
The absurdity of the BLM’s position is demonstrated by the two responses its scoping letter received. Both letters were sent by nearby landowners, who are familiar with the property in question and its owners. And both letters come to the same conclusion about the scoping letter: It’s incomplete.
The BLM offers three potential solutions for the trespassing problem: Do nothing; remove the structures and rehab the land; and sell up to 80 acres of public land to the people committing the trespass. Nowhere, however, does it mention the possibility of swapping land with McGrath and Grudzien despite their extensive holdings in the area. Prior to the release of the scoping letter, it’s worth noting, the owners expressed a desire not to conduct a land swap, BLM public affairs officer Lisa Clark told The Bulletin’s editorial board Tuesday.
Both response letters urge the BLM to consider a land swap and note precedents. “Several years ago,” land owner Jim Wood wrote, “we did such an exchange with the BLM for a parcel which we acquired on Sanford Creek at the BLM’s request.” Meanwhile, both letters point to suitable creekfront parcels within McGrath’s and Grudzien’s holdings for such a trade. This sort of exchange, Wood writes, “would help consolidate the BLM lands” and further protect waterways.
Both of these responses fulfill one of the key purposes of the BLM’s scoping letter: to offer “Other actions that would meet the purpose of resolving this issue.” The commenters were able to do this, however, only because they possess information the BLM believes the public shouldn’t have. They know who the property owners are, and because they do they were able to research their holdings and recommend sensible alternatives to the BLM’s proposed actions.
Why in the world would the BLM seek to prevent, through its secretiveness, the very thing it professes to want? Whatever the reason, it owes the people who own the land at issue a lot more transparency as the process unfolds.
And as evidence that it is, in fact, responsive to the public, it ought to work a land swap into its mix of potential solutions.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.