Public Participation: Having your Voice Heard
We’ve all seen the outreach before. A local government requesting your presence at a community park for a master planning meeting. A Zoom gathering about how to develop a new open space property. Possibly even an “action alert” email from a local nonprofit for a time sensitive comment period involving an important (and potentially controversial) decision. What’s the point of all these public participation opportunities and why should you care about it?
Public involvement is a critical tool for decision makers at all levels. The process can take many forms, but in general the reasoning is the same. Increased involvement from a diverse variety of stakeholders leads to decisions that reflect a community's values and ideas. Whether the motive is developing community buy-in from the onset, avoiding controversy at the end, or something in between, planners realize hearing from stakeholders leads to better outcomes. Not only do we–the public–end up with better decisions, but this process also gives us a way to hold the decision makers accountable and provides a layer of government transparency. This creates an important level of trust between an informed, engaged community and responsible leaders.
Public participation has played an integral role in decisions made on federal public lands and is in fact written into one of the cornerstone environmental laws of this country–the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Since its enactment in 1970, NEPA has required decisions made on federal lands or with federal dollars to consider environmental impacts and involve the public in the process.
While the process isn’t always perfect, it does ensure that the outcomes reflect what was heard from the public. Take for example the recent Forest Plan update in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. These plan updates are a major undertaking by the Forest Service and involve trying to balance the many different uses on federal land for the next 20, 30, 40 years sometimes. Because of the NEPA process, the public was involved early in the six year planning process and the final plan reflects that. Of course, not everyone was thrilled with the end result, but because of all the engagement through the process, the plan was something most people understood and could live with.
At a more local level, cities, counties, and state’s aren’t always required to involve or even inform the public about decisions. In the Truckee Meadows, we are very fortunate to have quality government staff and leadership that ensure the community is involved in things like master planning and open space development. Getting involved early in the planning is key to help guide the process and gives planners the most information as they do their work.
As the Truckee Meadows area continues to grow and local governments think towards the future, it is very important the local community weigh in. Public participation isn’t always guaranteed in every decision made around a community. It is important that when there is an opportunity, folks engage. The process isn’t always perfect, but neither is any community. Collaboration and open mindedness are key to solving problems on every scale.
Looking for ways to have your voice heard? Here are a few options from Washoe County that are open for public comment right now!
About the Author:
Daniel Dunn is the Trails Coordinator for TMPF. His work revolves around creating and connecting trail systems, advocating for trail-based outdoor recreation, and fostering stewardship in the Truckee Meadows area. He has a degree in Environmental Science from the University of South Carolina and was most recently working in outdoor recreation stewardship and advocacy around the Front Range of Colorado. In his free time, Daniel can be found scrambling, rambling, and ambling in the Sierras and beyond.