75% of Park Service FACA Committee Members Resign “In Protest”- Thinking About FACA Committees

Tony Knowles, former D governor of Alaska, member of National Park System Advisory Board

Here is an interesting story about the National Park Advisory FACA Committee from NBC News. Maybe Interior is different, but in USDA, FACA committee members are approved by political appointees, which is one of the problems with FACA committees, in my view. If you need to be considered OK by an administration of a different color, what are the chances that the exact same people will be considered OK by the administration of the opposite color? Did NBC news leave this part out of the story, or did it not fit in with the narrative “Trump people do uniquely awful things”, or did they just accept it at face value because the sources said so and details of how the government works are too complicated to go into? Notice the”news” story includes a tweet from the League of Conservation Voters. Makes you wonder “whose tweets count as news?” and how do reporters decide? But the story made me think some more about FACA committees in general and whether they could work better.

If you go to the National Park advisory board website here, you find out “Congress passed the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) in 1972 to create an orderly procedure by which Federal agencies may seek advice and assistance from citizens. In general, any council, panel, conference, task force, or similar group utilized by NPS officials for the purpose of obtaining consensus advice or recommendations on issues or policies will likely fall within the purview of FACA.” And yet on the same page it has the Board expiring in 2007 (guess other agencies have trouble keeping up their websites also.) You can also see the folks appointed and their backgrounds, and the report the Board generated with the help of 120 outside folks.

I had the challenging experience of being the Designated Federal Official for the Forestry Research Advisory Committee, which required working with the Office of White House Liaison with USDA (at the time, don’t know how it is now). I’ve also been involved in recruiting folks for various USDA advisory committees.

To me, getting approval from unknown levels of unknown folks is really difficult and keeps these groups from being as effective as they could be. And which ones really accomplish much? Do more focused ones (like the Black Hills FACA committee) do better than the broader, national ones?

The Roadless FACA committee did stuff (at least those of us working on the state Roadless Rules had to pay attention), I am not so sure about the Ag Biotech FACA committee USDA used to have. What has the planning rule FACA committee done?

Should the FS have a national FACA committee?

When the State of Colorado worked on the Colorado Roadless petition, I believe it was Josh Penry’s (state legislator and wonk extraordinaire) idea to have the taskforce who worked on it composed of (1) some people selected by individual parties, (2) some people both parties could agree on. Maybe in this hyperpartisanized era we seem to be in, we could somehow engineer the partisan-ness out of advisory committees (Congress picks them? or would that be against the Constitution?.but if they are only advisory? How about Governors?).

I think it would also help if some outside groups (say, a cooperative effort of schools of Public Administration) regularly (10 years) reviewed each FACA committee according to some criteria of utility, and made suggestions for improving its value to the government. These could then be send out for public comment and discussion, including among thoughtful blogging communities like ourselves. And of course, ways for streamlining the process. But perhaps now that it is so easy to get people’s opinions, we could dream up another way to do what advisory committees do by involving a broader range of people in some more structured and online process. What are your ideas?

8 thoughts on “75% of Park Service FACA Committee Members Resign “In Protest”- Thinking About FACA Committees”

  1. The president has not even nominated a director for the National Park Service, and we’re 1/4 of the way through his presidency. So no, this is not some normal administration-turnover thing, this is Trump not caring at all about public land management.

    • Travis, that is a fact (a Director has not been nominated), but I don’t know how you could know the intention behind it (if, in fact, things that happen in government are directly the intention of the President, and if the administration is organized in such a way that decisions are made rationally rather than through random thoughts/factors by random people at random levels of random organizations.)

      There is also no Undersecretary for the FS as far as I know.. and my impression is that having non-politicals running things in the absence of politicals could be actually a good thing. Politicals can Cause Unnecessary Drama! See Everything Through a Partisan Lens! Want Favors For People Who Support Their Party! Have Buddies That Need to Be Placated!

  2. I’m perhaps a bit jaded regarding “advisory groups”. My experience …

    Under the Northwest Forest Plan, the region (spotted owl, perhaps?) was divided into provinces with an advisory committee for each. I was on the Coast PAC but, after several years left; feeling it was an utter waste of time.

    At the meetings, the USFS and BLM told us what they were up to or had planned. Note the word, “told” as I saw little that was advisory. There were years when we did not meet at all because the PAC or, maybe, its members, were not re-authorized. Add this up and I felt it was a political sham meant to appease vocal segments of the community! [I might add that the conservation community was well-represented but the forest industry folks were conspicuously absent. When I asked various members of the industry why there were not at the table, they, too, felt it was a waste of their time.]

    For example: The PAC weighed in on a new BLM plan. What they should have done was to look at the big picture of the plan; i.e., what do people want from/for the federal forests. With the big picture determined by the committee (presumably representing the community), the land managers were certainly capable of taking it from there. Instead, the PAC’s comments consisted of nit-picky stuff and wanted more information.

    If these advisory committees truly do serve a purpose, then why is there not a committee made up of a broad cross-section of the community to advise on national monument designations? Presidents like to designate national monuments (like granting clemencies in the last days of their terms) and leave on a positive note. Why not use an adivsory committee? Why not have to go through the NEPA process much like any other land management process? The president seems to get a pass on this.

      • Travis- that helps me remember what good FACA committees do.. they are intentionally composed of people from different perspectives who can work out disagreements among themselves and then present them to the agency or political decision-makers.
        That is different from a bunch of different community groups lobbying for their chosen position, from which the agency/politicals get to pick or figure our their own types of compromise.
        The fundamental problem is that if all FACA members are picked by a color of party, even if they are selected to “represent” a different perspective, those reps may not have legitimacy with the other color of party. So there may be a fundamental problem with using FACA groups for what we want them to do (work out disagreements with some political legitimacy).

    • Dick- thanks for this.. this reminds me of the Ag Biotech committee. Sec says “we want advice on x”. Committee decides instead to address “y”. Some of us staff wanted the Chair to rein them in, but how could he? It was like herding cats…

    • Dick, as I’ve said on this blog before, Presidents have abused the spirit, if not the letter of the Antiquities Act. Congress ought to be the “committee made up of a broad cross-section of the community to advise on national monument designations.”

      BTW, I recently received notice that I’ve been selected to sit on the Hood-Willamette RAC. I look forward to the experience.

  3. I’m not sure whether FACA committees were ever expected to be effective. The key word in your quote is “orderly.” The law was intended to limit backroom negotiations with selected constituents by prohibiting advisory groups that were not complaint with FACA formation and operation requirements. Most of my experience with the law had to do with avoiding inappropriate meetings between the Forest Service and informal “advisory groups” (and figuring out how that differed from “collaborative groups”). That being said, if an agency goes to the trouble to establish a FACA committee, it should try to make it work.


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