Holland Lake and the Consent of the Governed

In a nation founded on the principle that all power in governance resides in “we the people,” the “consent of the governed” should be the goal not only of those in the public policy arena, but in the government agencies charged with implementing those policies. That’s particularly important in the management of public lands and wildlife in Montana. Yet, in recent times, we have troubling examples of government agencies, both state and federal, attempting to avoid prudent public scrutiny and the consent of the governed.

The poster child for this form of governmental abuse is the recent Forest Service debacle with the Holland Lake Lodge. In a nutshell, the agency tried to slide a large proposed expansion of the historic Holland Lake Lodge by new owners under the phony cover of a “categorical exclusion” from environmental analysis as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Categorical exclusions were allowed for simple maintenance projects land management agencies routinely do that are not expected to have any impact on the environment. That would include such activities as painting outhouses, putting new roofs on buildings, painting lines on the parking lots, etc. The exclusion was never intended to be applied to major actions such as the significant expansion of private facilities on public lands operating under the conditions of a Special Use Permit as in the case of the Holland Lake Lodge.

In fact, the Forest Service has come under significant scrutiny and potential legal liability since the Special Use Permit is required by law to be immediately canceled upon the sale or transfer of the properties for which it was issued. Despite some rather convoluted attempts to muddle the issue, the simple reality is that Holland Lake Lodge has been purchased, management has changed hands, and the Forest Service decided to ignore the law to facilitate the transfer and expansion without dealing with environmental analysis and pesky public oversight.

That didn’t exactly work out the way the Forest Service hoped. Of the whopping 6,500 comments the agency received, 99% opposed the expansion. In short, the agency attempted to sidestep consent of the governed, and the governed were not one bit happy. The entire project is now in both procedural and legal limbo, and there’s a very big and nasty stain on the Forest Service for even trying to pull a fast one on Montanans. Once the public loses trust in a government agency, it is very difficult to restore credibility.

That’s an important lesson for all land management agencies and one the state should heed. Recently, Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks sent out Environmental Assessments with a mere 15-day public review and comment period from the time the material was sent.

For decades, the standard timeline for public review and comment on environmental analysis required under the Montana Environmental Policy Act has been 30 days. That standard should remain in place for all the right reasons. Montanans have a great deal of “on the land” knowledge and it’s simply bad public policy to diminish their opportunity to provide input, ask questions, and support, oppose or modify public lands management actions. Yet that’s exactly what a 15-day public review and comment deadline does.

Consent of the governed is not just a feel-good phrase. It’s for real. And when federal, state or local governments propose actions on lands and waters owned by the public, “the governed” deserve a fair shake to weigh in and give or, as in the case of the Holland Lake Lodge, withhold “consent” on their lands and waters.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.