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December 19, 2011

Finding Our Voices

Have you ever been to Bryce Canyon National Park? I still remember standing at Sunset Point on my first visit as a teenager, hoping to sneak away to climb the hoodoos in the valley below. It's one of the most beautiful, inspiring places in the country, which is why when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced a public meeting in Salt Lake City to gather public comments on its proposal to approve a giant coal strip-mine next to Bryce Canyon National Park, it wasn't hard to find citizens ready to object. More than 200 showed up at the Salt Lake City Library to speak their minds.

What they found when they got there, though, was that this particular "hearing" would be like a silent film -- only written comments allowed.

When asked why there would be no opportunity for public testimony, BLM officials said they were required to hold only one public meeting and it had already happened the week before in Cedar City, where testimony was gathered from mine employees and other mine boosters.

That answer didn't sit well with disgruntled participants who had come to voice their objections to the strip mine. What happened next was citizen democracy at its most inspired.

Borrowing a tactic from Occupy Salt Lake City (where some of the participants had come from) a group of protesters started a "human microphone" and began reading their testimony in short tight phrases that were then repeated by the crowd around the room. The stunned BLM officials watched nervously as the actual public took over their “public” meeting.  

The message the public had for the BLM was that it should reject the strip-mine proposal, protect the park and wildlife, and promote clean-energy alternatives -- not more dirty coal.

Eventually, former national BLM director Patrick Shea, who is now a private citizen, offered to serve as an informal hearing officer and take oral testimony from anyone in the room. He apologized to his former agency colleagues for usurping their meeting, but said he felt it was important that citizens be allowed to voice their concerns in a public space. He asked for volunteers to record the testimony in writing and to then submit it to the BLM.

If the BLM's plan was to quietly slip in and out of town and avoid a public confrontation, then it seriously miscalculated -- and underestimated both the outrage and the ingenuity that a proposal to strip-mine next to one of our most treasured national parks could generate. When the people needed it, they found their voice.

How about you? You may have missed the human microphone, but you can still help stop the strip mine before it's too late.

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