Discourse and Argument in Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Environmental Impact Statements
Ginger, Clare, Policy Studies Journal
This study examines argument as a link between technical information and policy recommendations in wilderness environmental impact statements (EISs) produced by the Bureau of Land Management. As the EISs went from draft to final form, their structure and content changed. The changes reflect a shift to incorporate wilderness protection into the policy agenda for public lands. The analysis suggests that EISs can be understood as a form of argumentative discourse in which agency personnel frame issues and make normative arguments through technical analyses.
Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) to reform federal decisionmaking. NEPA focused attention on the environmental impacts of federal actions with the expectation that such attention would help mitigate or prevent negative environmental effects of development projects. NEPA requires the production of environmental impact statements (EISs) as a mechanism for this reform.  Through EISs, proposed federal actions are refrained to include consideration of the potential negative environmental effects of such actions. EISs have been defined as both technical and political reforms. They have been assessed in terms of analytical content and in terms of how agencies and interest groups use them to promote agendas (Andrews, 1976; Baber, 1988; Bardach & Pugliaresi, 1977; Bartlett, 1986; Beattie, 1995; Caldwell, 1982; Clary & Kraft, 1988; Culhane, Friesema, & Beecher, 1987; Fairfax, 1978, 1983; Friesema & Culhane, 1985; Liroff, 1976; Mangun, 1988; Mazmanian & Clarke, 1979; Sax, 1973; Ta ylor, 1984). In general, EISs contribute to issue definition and agenda setting. They are an arena in which participants in policy debates frame decisions and make arguments about future action through analysis of environmental impacts. In producing them, agency analysts join political recommendations with technical analyses through arguments about policy action.
In the 1980s the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) produced wilderness EISs that evaluated 855 areas, comprising 24 million acres of public land, and recommended for or against wilderness designation of these areas.  Many of these EISs were transformed from vague statements about commodity and wilderness values in the drafts to specific numbers about values attached to places in the final documents; they became more focused and analytical. Ginger and Mohai (1993) examined some of these EISs to test for statistical relationships between information and recommendations. While some of the information showed statistically significant relationships to recommendations, over 90% did not. Ginger and Mohai (1993, p. 137) suggested that, "for the most part, the data in the EISs did not have an important influence on agency decisions" and that "the lack of connection between data and recommendations gives weight to the proposition that the agency was primarily fulfilling a legal requirement." This paper examines how s tructural changes in the EISs reflect political discourse about wilderness designation of public lands. The changes suggest that the connection between data and recommendations can be understood in terms of normative argument. This case illustrates how agency analysts frame policy debates and make arguments for action through technical analysis.
The roles of administrative agencies in defining policy issues are a regular part of the policy literature (Baier, March, & Saetren, 1986; Bardach, 1977; Brodkin, 1990; Feldman, 1989; Fischer & Forester, 1993; Forester, 1993; Kingdon, 1995; Lindblom, 1959; Majone, 1989; Nakamura & Smallwood, 1980; Palumbo & Calista, 1990).  Agency personnel conduct technical analyses to define issues and participate in political processes to make policy recommendations. Fischer and Forester (1993, p. 2) suggested that agency analysts "construct working accounts of problems and possibilities," and that their arguments can be evaluated for "their selective framing of the issues." Hajer (1993) used the term "discourse" to refer to the selective framing of issues that identifies some aspects of a situation and not others. Majone (1989, p. 23) asserted that "practicing policy analysts often engage in argumentative discourse (as they) debate values, question objectives, agree or disagree about assumptions, and advocate or justi fy courses of action on the basis of less-than-conclusive evidence." In his estimation, "argument is the link that connects data and information with the conclusions of an analytic study" (Majone, 1989, p. 10). The concept of argumentative discourse brings attention to how analysts frame problems and make arguments about policy decisions.
Fischer and Forester (1993) enumerated several advantages to a focus on argumentative processes associated with policy analysis and planning. It illuminates how "practitioners formulate and construct what 'the problem' shall be taken practically to be" (Fischer & Forester, 1993, p. 5). They argued that emphasizing technical analysis draws too much attention to the "content of presumably ultimate documents" at the expense of seeing "the rich work that precedes and follows document production" (Fischer & Forester, 1993, p. 6). The analysis presented here indicates that the structure and content of technical documents are important elements of problem definition and argument in policy debates. In producing wilderness EISs, BLM personnel defined the issue of wilderness designation as they implemented a mandate from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA). Changes in the structure and information in the EISs indicate a shift in the dominant framing of the issue and contributed to an emerging po licy agenda of preserving wilderness values on public lands.
Wilderness designation of public lands is highly contentious. It brings traditional public lands policy, which promotes commodity development, into conflict with wilderness policy, which protects land from development. Roe (1989, 1994) advocated a narrative approach for analyzing complex and polarized policy issues. He noted that "Bureaucratic stories and narratives are ... frequently the way public managers, government policymakers, and politicians articulate and ... structure the ambiguities attached to important policy issues" (Roe, 1989, p. 263). Roe's approach parallels those of Fischer and Forester (1993) and Majone (1989). It recognizes that issues are framed through stories and argument. An examination of argument in the BLM wilderness EISs reveals the structure of stories about wilderness designation.  It shows how BLM personnel joined technical analyses to recommendations through conflicting arguments about wilderness designation. It illustrates the role administrative agencies play in agenda se tting as they establish the dominant framing of policy issues through technical studies.
FLPMA directed the BLM to review land in its jurisdiction, to recommend areas for wilderness designation by 1991 (Federal Land Policy and Management Act, 1976, [sections]1782). The agency combined the directives of the FLPMA and NEPA by establishing a three-phase wilderness review in which EISs were produced during the second phase (Bureau of Land Management, 1978).  Through the EISs, the BLM evaluated study areas to determine their suitability for wilderness designation (Wilderness Study Policy, 1982). The EISs describe various resources, their development potential, impacts of designation and nondesignation alternatives, and recommendations for designations. Overall, the wilderness review generated polarized debate about wilderness designation of public lands. The debate reflected the fact that the wilderness mandate challenged BLM's historical focus on resource development.  Within the BLM, debate about tradeoffs among policy goals was channeled, in part, into debate about technical analyses in the EISs. Thus, technical information in the documents cannot be separated from political debate about whether public lands should be designated as wilderness. The internal debate took place in the context of a conservative shift in the presidency.
The first phase of the wilderness review, the inventory, occurred under the Carter administration. It was part of the impetus for the sagebrush rebellion of the late 1970s, which contributed to Carter's loss of the 1980 presidential election (Cawley, 1993).  The inventory signaled a possible change in the policy agenda for public lands to add wilderness protection, and Carter's administration was sympathetic to this change. However, much of the inventory was controlled by BLM field offices.  These offices hired seasonal employees to identify areas with wilderness characteristics. They reviewed 174 million acres of land between 1977 and 1980, working in small crews that often were isolated from other agency personnel.  Their proposals for wilderness study areas frequently were met with hostility.
In public meetings, citizens resisted the identification of wilderness characteristics on public lands.  Conflict erupted in protests such as an attempted incursion into a potential wilderness study area on July 4, 1979 by a county road crew in Utah (Oversight of the Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Program, 1984, pp. 49-50, 126). Internally, while BLM Director Frank Gregg and the Washington office supported wilderness, inventory decisions were made by field managers. Some of these managers did not support, and sometimes actively opposed, the designation of wilderness on public lands.  By 1980, the inventory was complete and the landbase under evaluation for wilderness designation had been reduced from 174 million to 24 million acres (Wilderness inventory results, 1980). Permanent employees were hired as wilderness specialists, and although some inventory decisions were under appeal, the BLM began the study phase.
With the move from the inventory to the study phase, the number of BLM personnel participating in the review expanded. In addition, the power balance shifted as Washington Office Wilderness staff and Department of the Interior personnel took on dominant roles relative to field offices. The former change occurred because the questions to which the studies responded were different from the questions to which the inventory responded. The inventory identified study areas with wilderness characteristics. In the study, the BLM evaluated areas for suitability for legislative designation as wilderness, taking into account other resource …
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Publication information: Article title: Discourse and Argument in Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Environmental Impact Statements. Contributors: Ginger, Clare - Author. Journal title: Policy Studies Journal. Volume: 28. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2000. Page number: 292. © 1999 Policy Studies Organization. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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