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Public comment allows all scientists at any stage in their career to become engaged in policy by helping federal agencies meet their management goals. But you may be wondering – does public comment really effect change? Has it really had an impact on federal regulations? We’ve compiled a few examples to illustrate that it does.

We'll also use this space to reflect on recent events, workshops, and collaborations. 

Keep an eye out for guest posts from scientific organizations and individual scientists on how and why they comment. 

Reflections on `Making Government Work for All: A Workshop on Public Comment`

 

Our fourth floor room at the Seattle Public Library slowly cleared out at the insistence of the Library’s event space coordinator, reminding us that the building would be closing in only fifteen short minutes. Half of our workshop coordinators were still deep in discussion with the remaining attendees, while the other half of us were frantically gathering our things.

It’s a good feeling to organize a workshop that ends on time but still keeps people late.

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A collaborative effort between The Public Comment Project and the UAW Student Union’s Climate Justice Working Group, our workshop brought together science, environmental and labor advocates in the Seattle area. And with the sponsorship of the Union of Concerned Scientists, we sought to contribute to their mission to defend the role of science in public policy, with an emphasis on local impacts.

 

I and Elliot Koontz, another Public Comment Project volunteer, kicked off the workshop with an overview of how public comment works, its role in the rulemaking process, and online resources for commenting. Almost immediately, we were fielding insightful - and sometimes highly technical - questions from the audience: How long are documents usually open for public comment, and who decides to extend comment periods? Who is reading over the comments? How will I know when an agency responds to my comment? (You can find the answers here). This first introduction to public comment is my favorite part of any workshop; I get to see general interest turn into intense curiosity, intrigue, surprise, and excitement as the power of the process is fully realized. It's a reflection of my first time hearing about the public comment process, and a reminder of why The Public Comment Project began - and continues - its mission. 

 

But understanding the details of public comment is just a starting place; to be an effective participant, you need to know how to write substantive comments that are unique and fact-based. Our workshop participants sat down with several examples of public comments written by informed citizens and professional organizations. Lively discussions started over the strengths and weaknesses of each; one comment's format was easy to read, one comment included a perspective from a local community member, one comment ended with a bibliography for all of the research that was cited.

The discussions continued and expanded over pizza during a quick dinner break. As I wandered between small groups, I was inspired by the different backgrounds, unique perspectives, and common passion held by everyone in the room. It was difficult to return from the break not because of people's reluctance, but rather their enthusiasm, for the topics at hand; we could have spent another hour in informal discussions on public comment and the material presented in the first half of the workshop. 

But of course, we had yet to reach the heart of the workshop: writing public comments to decision-makers on the state and federal level. Our workshop coordinators from the Climate Justice Working Group - Elliot Koontz, Sam Pennypacker, and Judy Twedt - had searched through numerous open comment opportunities to find rules related to public health, environmental protections, and safe working environments. They had settled on one state, and two federal, opportunities: (1) The Environmental Protection Agency's draft strategic plan for 2018 - 2022, (2) the draft Environmental Impact Statement on development for production from the Liberty oil field off of the coast of Alaska, and (3) Puget Sound Energy's Integrated Resource Plan. Each had then dedicated time before the workshop to become intimately familiar with the language, supplementary information, and implications of each proposed action. 

Elliot, Sam and Judy presented each opportunity to all of the workshop participants, and then everyone split into smaller groups based on which of the three comment opportunities they wanted to focus on. Here, again, lively discussion arose, each person bringing a different perspective and new information to the table. 

Until suddenly, the library was near closing time. 

I had been nervous that I would be overwhelmed to move from workshops on volunteer training to practicing effective public comment techniques. But from the minute we started talking about the public comment process, to collecting our materials at the end of the evening, I completely forgot my nerves and was instead overwhelmed by positive and enthusiastic response of everyone who attended. 

 

Many thanks to my fellow workshop coordinators, Elliot Koontz, Sam Pennypacker, and Judy Twedt; Maya Garber-Yonts, who volunteered to serve food and beverages; and, of course, all of the incredible workshop participants whose passion and dedication made our first public commenting workshop a success. 

 

Stay tuned for more follow-ups on the public comments that came out of the workshop, including guest blog posts by other workshop coordinators! 

 

 

 

 

 

Contributed by: Mary Fisher

 

FROM REVIEW ARTICLE TO ABALONE PROTECTION

  Photo credit: Laurel Bartels

Photo credit: Laurel Bartels

Regulation Proposal: Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Final Rule-making To Designate Critical Habitat for Black Abalone

See Original Comment

See Agency Response

 

Public comment can be as straightforward as copying and pasting parts of a manuscript. Yes, it’s that simple – and it’s been successfully done before. An ecologist was working on a review article (later given the apt title “Spineless Wonders”) about protections for marine invertebrate larvae. As part of the research process, he came across an open regulation proposal from the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate critical habitat for black abalone.

The proposal accounted for suitable settlement substrate and water quality for the normal settlement, growth, behavior and viability of black abalone. While the commenter recognized this as an important step forward towards designating critical habitat for black abalone, he also noticed that these measures focused only on the juvenile and adult life stages. There were no explicit considerations for the larvae, which is a highly vulnerable life stage that can be crucial to abalone recovery.

Black abalone are ‘r’ strategists, producing millions of gametes during broadcast spawning which fertilize in the water column to become planktonic larvae. Black abalone larvae then occupy the water column for up to 10 days before settlement onto rocky substrates.As with other marine species whose life cycles contain a planktonic larval stage, this point in the life cycle is a source of high mortality.

Low water quality from anthropogenic pollutants can result in even greater larval mortality and decreased growth, creating an even larger bottleneck at this stage.

The scientist used the beginning of his comment to point out that in order to realize the goals of the Endangered Species Act, every life stage of a species must be considered. This creates a legal mandate for the designation of critical habitat that protects each of those life stages. To illustrate this point, he drew a parallel to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s inclusion of sufficient water flow and water quality as primary elements of freshwater mussels’ critical habitats. He then went on to describe how best to determine whether abalone larvae occupy an area depending on their biology and behavior, as practically identifying occupation of a habitat is much more difficult for tiny, transparent larvae than for orcas or eagles.

The larval stages of listed invertebrates thus fall squarely within the Act’s ambit: a protected species is protected at all stages of its life cycle
— Comment #7, Final Rule-making To Designate Critical Habitat for Black Abalone

 

In the final ruling, the agency incorporated the comment by designating the water above protected rocky habitats as critical habitat itself. This will ensure that required water quality standards must protect the entirety of the life cycle, and not just the juvenile or adult phases.

 

A key part of this successful comment was the way the scientist used his knowledge of how other species’ protections had been handled by NMFS and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Drawing parallels between a proposal and existing regulations can strengthen your comment by adding relevance and context . While this is not in the traditional repertoire for natural scientists, it is something that can be accomplished with the research skills that scientists have; for example, by conducting a short review of the materials available in the docket folder related to that regulation.

 

Contributed by: Mary Fisher & Natalie Lowell