UPDATED 5/15/2017: Story updated to reflect receiving statement from Heather Swift of Interior Department.
The Trump administration has abruptly suspended the meetings of the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission and that of about 200 other federal advisory committees, as part of a broad Interior Department review of land use and management.
That means cancellation of a June 5 Acadia advisory commission meeting at park headquarters to tackle some of the most substantial issues facing the commission since its inception in 1986. And it may also affect a meeting scheduled for Sept. 11 at Schoodic.
Jacqueline Johnston of Gouldsboro, chair of the Acadia advisory commission, said she was “very surprised and disappointed” by the decision, which she found out about last week in an e-mail from Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider, about Interior’s suspension of meetings by federal advisory committees.
The order now puts on hold the advisory commission’s official work on several major topics: Acadia’s acceptance of a private donation of more than 1,400 acres of land for Schoodic Woods without Congressional approval; a controversy surrounding park policy on worm, seaweed and shellfish harvesting in tidal flats; and the park’s transportation plan.
“It’s unfortunate that the commission cannot continue at this point with the good work it does to ensure that the public’s voice is heard,” said Johnston in an interview.
Acadia Superintendent Schneider shared the Interior directive with Acadia advisory commission members in an e-mail on May 9, saying that the department “has commenced a review of federal advisory committees … in order to ensure their compliance with both the Federal Advisory Committee Act and recent Executive Orders. Therefore … committee meetings nationwide scheduled through September 2017 are paused until further notice.”
In e-mailed statement on Monday morning, an Interior Department spokeswoman called the suspension temporary, to allow Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke time to review the “charter and charge” of more than 200 federal advisory committees, including the Acadia advisory commission.
“The secretary is committed to restoring trust in the department’s decision-making, and that begins with institutionalizing state and local input and ongoing collaboration, particularly in communities surrounding public lands,” said spokeswoman Heather Swift in her statement.
“As the department concludes its review in the weeks ahead, agencies will notice future meetings to ensure that the department continues to get the benefit of the views of local communities in all decision-making on public land management.”
Federal advisory committees’ suspension may limit public input
The timing of the suspension may also mean no formal input from federal advisory committees during the Interior Department’s 15- to 60-day public comment period on 27 national monuments, including Katahdin Woods and Waters. The comment period is part of a review ordered last month by President Donald J. Trump, of certain national monuments established under the 1906 Antiquities Act, including whether there was adequate public input.
But for at least one member of the Acadia advisory commission, this latest move by the Trump Administration goes contrary to its stated desire for more public input in dealings between federal land agencies and surrounding communities.
“I think this is very serious for the Department of the Interior to be interfering with our activity,” said longtime commission member Ben Emory, of Bar Harbor.
For Interior to be reviewing the creation of Katahdin Woods and Waters for adequate public comment on the one hand, and for it to be “cancelling meetings that are designed to provide local input to the National Park Service” on the other, is “inconsistency at the very least,” said Emory.
The 16-member, volunteer Acadia advisory commission was created by Congress in 1986 in response to community concerns about the park expanding its boundaries without adequate input. It meets 3 times a year, and all members are appointed by the secretary of interior. The commission is made up of 3 representatives selected by the secretary, 3 recommended by the Governor of Maine, and one each recommended by 10 towns.
While the recent Schoodic Woods expansion of the park has been welcomed by local communities as an economic boost, some Acadia advisory commission members first raised concerns about how it was handled, without Congressional approval, as they believe is required under the same 1986 law that created the commission.
More controversial is the park’s policy on whether worm, shellfish and seaweed harvesting can be done between the low- and high-tide marks. Acadia advisory commission members have been getting input from all sides, and the intertidal zone issue was sure to be a major topic of discussion at the June 5 meeting.
“The commission respects the decision by the Secretary of Interior for his pause and has no intention of conducting a public meeting until advised that we can,” said Acadia advisory commission chair Johnston. But she added that commission members can continue to listen to the public, even if it can’t conduct formal meetings with park staff.
While Johnston said she and other commission members are concerned, she hopes the administration will expedite the review so that the non-partisan commission can quickly resume conducting business. “I must have some level of faith in what the administration has stated, in that it is a brief pause.”
During her 15 to 20 years on the commission, Johnston added, the panel has never previously been instructed to pause meetings.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress by Sen. Angus King and Rep. Bruce Poliquin to address the formal acceptance of the Schoodic Woods land donation, and the intertidal zone controversy.
A group of western Democratic senators sent a letter to Interior last week, urging a reversal of the suspension of federal advisory committees to the Bureau of Land Management.
“We are very concerned about this news,” wrote Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO); Ron Wyden (D-OR); Tom Udall (D-NM); Martin Heinrich (D-NM); Patty Murray (D-WA); Maria Cantwell (D-WA); Jeff Merkley (D-OR); and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
“It is critical that local voices … have the opportunity to provide input and take part in the process at all times, not just when those local voices align with the Administration or a large special interest,” wrote the senators in their May 11 letter.