Opinion: An environmental rift: Cutting corners in ocean protection

Environmental groups, long the champions of upholding the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), have instead been working to short-cut environmental protection.

That’s correct: environmental groups actively sought to sidestep environmental law which requires openness in analyzing negative environmental impacts of projects.

Usually, these groups fight to ensure complete compliance with CEQA – they repelled numerous legislative attacks by developers, and even Governor Schwarzenegger, already this year.  But ironically, some have apparently decided CEQA doesn’t apply to projects they favor.

Recently, the legally required CEQA review process got underway in Southern California in connection with adopting new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).  And many expected this scientific analysis to be completely transparent.

Instead, the Department of Fish and Game decided it didn’t need to hold an open “scoping” meeting.  It didn’t need to allow other public agencies, special districts, or interested public the opportunity to discuss and share ideas surrounding the range of issues that must be covered in an Environmental Impact Report (those famous EIRs).

But fortunately, the law is clear; projects affecting the coastal zone are projects of statewide significance, and projects of statewide significance require at least one CEQA scoping meeting.

That’s why we and other fishing groups requested as much at the Fish & Game Commission meeting on June 23, 2010.   However, commission members were not sympathetic and their lawyers didn’t seem to know the law.

Amazingly, representatives of Heal the Bay, Orange County Coastkeeper and The Ocean Conservancy argued against complying with CEQA, against the public’s right to engage their government in critical decisions. Apparently, they felt the informal discussions that preceded the legal process were good enough.

I wonder if they would take the same view if an LNG terminal project or renewed off-shore oil drilling project had gotten lots of informal consideration. Would these groups then agree that strictly following CEQA was not necessary?

It would be funny, if it weren’t so serious, and if it weren’t a pattern of superficially engaging the public in the march toward decreeing restrictive marine protected areas and effectively shutting down fishing in California.

Those of us who have been involved in creating these marine protected areas, the citizens who will be locked out of areas in the ocean where we have recreated, fished, and made a living for years, know from personal experience that “the most open and transparent process ever,” the one with “unprecedented transparency and stakeholder involvement,” – is anything but.

Yes, there have been many meetings and yes, there’s a handpicked Blue Ribbon Task Force (BRTF) to listen to the public and a Regional Stakeholders Group (RSG) to share ideas and concerns.

But we’ve all witnessed the shallowness of the task force discussions, and an absence of probing questions regarding legal or science guidance. We know of the private meetings that preceded changes to deliberation procedures and the closed door early morning meetings of the task force to review the day’s agenda.

We also know about the frantic two weeks of emails and phone calls last fall, trying to nail down a compromise network of marine protected areas in Southern California.

What’s more troubling is that we’re repeatedly told that the governor’s task force is exempt from state law.  You know, the one requiring open meetings and advance notice, the one that prohibits private deal making.

The staff overseeing the process (we can’t call them state employees since they work for a private entity) says they have a legal opinion supporting this claim, but they won’t share it with anyone.

The BRTF assists the Fish & Game Commission and passes its recommendations to the Commission, a role that clearly makes the BRTF subject to state open meeting laws. But letters to the Commission for clarification of how the law applies are met with derision and are ignored.

One commission member even recently said, “There’s more than one way to be open and transparent.”

Yes, there’s the legal way and then there is the made up, fake way that’s sprinkled with lots of meetings and lots of talk, but little hearing and little caring.  In public participation lingo, this is called “eventology” where the value of participation is scored by the number of meetings and the number of people speaking.

One coalition of fishing groups has been seeking certain documents integral to the marine protected areas designation process.  After months of being ignored by the task force and its private staff, the coalition finally went to court to get openness and transparency from the “most open and transparent process ever.”

Returning to the recent Fish & Game Commission meeting – fortunately after sleeping on it the lawyers advised that a scoping meeting is required by law.  But whether this marks a turning point in transparency and an end to backroom deals, we’ll see.

Or maybe we won’t.

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