Make a public comment
One important way that scientists can get involved in public policy is making a public comment. Agencies must offer opportunities for public comment on proposed rules during the rulemaking process. Similar requirements apply to analysis performed under the National Environmental Policy Act (i.e. environmental impact statements). These public comment periods can provide opportunities for scientists to provide additional information supporting or refuting the agencies’ findings and conclusions.
ESA posts these opportunities on the Federal Register tracker.
Why should scientists and citizens comment?
- Agencies must consider all new information received during the comment period and address that new information before publishing the final rule; this includes revising the proposed rule.
- A good comment can be the basis for a court challenge (i.e. a lawsuit). If the agencies does not adequately address the new information, the agency can then be sued and the rule places on hold until the issues raised by the new information are resolved.
- Advocacy groups and journalists often scour public comments to look get ideas for their own comments and campaigns and to contextualize proposed rules.
How to comment
First, do your research. In order to make your comment stronger, try to understand the framework that the agency operates in and the agency’s goals. You can do that by researching what the laws that govern the agency’s activities – for example, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act for EPA and the Endangered Species Act for USFWS and the agency’s mission statement. Federal agencies’ actions are driven by their mission and held to the standards dictated by statutes, so make your comment stronger by explaining how your information contributes to their mission.
Tips for writing your comment:
- Say why you are commenting and explain your expertise. You can comment as a scientific expert, if you are impacted by a decision or rule (personally or professionally), or if you have a connection to the issues at hand. If you are commenting as a scientific expert, one way to start your comment is: I have ten years of experience researching X ecosystem and have worked with X agency, published papers, written plans, etc.
- Keep your comment focused, and stick to the information you know. Don’t extrapolate beyond your realm of knowledge.
- Provide any information you have. Submit journal article as an appendix. If you include a journal article as part of a comment, agencies may have to reject your comments due to copyright concerns, so by submitting them as an appendix, the information in your comment can be public and published plus the agency is guaranteed to know exactly what articles you are citing. Unpublished papers (grey literature) is OK to submit. Agencies make decisions using the “best available science.” This can include these kinds of documents. News reports about events in your community (i.e. high incidents of cancer, oil spills, etc) can also be submitted. Information about the feasibility or economic costs of the proposal can also be valuable.
- Be constructive, civil, and concise. Look at the underlying assumptions of the rule and if applicable, comment on whether the proposed solution is the appropriate solution or explain why it isn’t.
- Don’t be rude and don’t make assumptions about the individual reading the comment etc.
- Make your points in a concise manner, no need to stretch your comment for length.
- Clearly communicate the implications of the information you present and avoid leaving it up to the agency to infer how research or data relates to the regulation.
Here is a sample comment submitted by a scientist in response to an environmental impact statement for the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska.
As a biologist studying migratory shorebirds, I have spent a great deal of time at bays and estuaries along the Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet coasts. I have spent many weeks across many years documenting and monitoring the migration ecology of shorebirds, as well as conducting basic inventories of landbirds in both Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks.
1. State your Expertise
These sites represent some of the last pristine sites in the world for many unique and charismatic species of birds. I have read the chapter in the EIS on spill risks, and am most concerned about potential impacts to these sites due to tailings releases. Reading this chapter, the perceived risks due to a tailings release are deemed minor, and considered to be restricted largely to the immediate area of any release. I cannot speak to the verity of this conclusion. However, were releases (tailings, diesel, reagents, or untreated contact water) to find their way to Bristol Bay or Cook Inlet, I am concerned that such contaminants would have far-reaching and long-term effects.
2. Acknowledge the Limitations of your expertise
Most of the 100s of thousands of shorebirds that annually use sites in Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet rely on these regions’ incredibly productive benthic ecosystems to fuel their migrations. These shorebirds (and many sea ducks) forage primarily on one species, Macoma balthica, a small but incredibly abundant bivalve. Macoma are very sensitive to pollutants, and I am concerned that these sites, many recognized by for their value to migratory birds by groups like the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network and the Alaska Shorebird Group, would become degraded.
3. Summarize relevant data/research
Shorebirds rely on predictable access to productive stopover sites to enable their migratory movements, and the loss of these sites does not mean that the birds can simply visit another nearby site, because these sites are interconnected across Bristol Bay. A spill in the Nushagak drainage, in my opinion, has the potential to affect estuaries in the Kvichak drainage by virtue of both rivers sharing Bristol Bay as a terminus. So, any effluence from the Nushagak, for instance, has the ability to also affect an embayment like Egegik Bay by virtue of these sites’ shared marine terminus. Many shorebird populations are in decline around the world, and the primary cause is due to degradation and loss of habitat. Alaska represents one of the last places in the world where truly pristine bays and estuaries exist, providing a reliable buffer for migratory shorebirds that face loss and degradation elsewhere during the annual cycle. I am most familiar with potential negative impacts on shorebirds, but the same concerns also relate to a wide variety of wildlife (e.g., salmon, bears, caribou, vegetation, etc) that all rely on healthy wetlands and waterways. I do not believe that exploiting the region’s mineral resources outweighs the risk of degrading these wildlife resources.
4. State your conclusion
Other sample comments made by scientists:
- Revised Definition of Waters of the United States (2019)
- Removing the Hawaiian Hawk from the Endangered Species List
- Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Status for the Kenk’s Amphipod
Sample comment template from the Public Comment Project:
I would like to bring to the agency’s attention new [research and/or data] that is highly relevant for the decision-making process regarding the proposed regulation [Regulation title, Docket #].
The proposed regulation text cites [this research] when providing context for the following regulatory actions : [actions here]. The related [research and/or data] summarized below, which is not included within the current regulation text, [does/does not] support the data presented by the agency…
[Summarize research findings] The sources for the [research and/or data] cited above can be found at the end of this comment.
Please take this research into consideration when making any adjustments for the final regulation.
[Degree, Additional Qualifications]
- Federal Register 101. Office of the Federal Register. https://www.federalregister.gov/uploads/2011/01/fr_101.pdf
- A Guide to the Rulemaking Process. Office of the Federal Register. https://www.federalregister.gov/uploads/2011/01/the_rulemaking_process.pdf
- A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump De-Regulatory Agenda. Save EPA. http://saveepaalums.info/Resistance+Guide
- ESA Federal Register Tracker: https://www.esa.org/esablog/federal-register-opportunities/