Nearly two weeks ago the public comment period on how the Park Service might commemorate its centennial in 2016 wrapped up.
Gaining at least a two-week window on that official deadline are representatives from the American Recreation Coalition and National Parks Conservation Association and possibly the National Park Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
As I noted earlier this week, Dirk and Mary invited these folks to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, for two days to discuss which signature projects will be proposed in the Interior secretary's report on the National Park Centennial Initiative to the president later this spring.
Trying to discover exactly who's in attendance is difficult, as the Park Service's communications staff in Washington doesn't know and I'm still waiting to hear back from the Interior Department's communications staff.
Which raises the question of how Mary defines "transparency."
I've heard the intent of this two-day meeting was to rank the signature projects and programs that will be contained in Dirk's report. If that's true, it would seem to trigger a requirement that the meeting comply with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which in a nutshell requires some openness to this process.
In fact, it requires a lot of openness. Under the act, notice of such meetings must be published in the Federal Register, there must be a specific agenda, a list of attendees must be kept, and minutes must be taken. Oh, and the meeting must be open to the public.
Now, the folks running the Shepherdstown retreat don't believe their meeting falls under the act.
"The reason is that there won't be any consensus reached at the session. The purpose is to gather ideas. There's been lots of brainstorming, but no conclusions. It has the feel of a very long listening session," was the response that came back to me when I inquired whether FACA applied to the meetings.
And that's where the debate begins.
The Devil's advocate would argue that two days of "brainstorming" goes beyond merely "gathering ideas" and constitutes a measure or two of advice being given. And why were these groups called to a closed meeting with Dirk and Mary in out-of-the-way Shepherdstown two weeks after the public comment period closed to hash out the list of centennial initiative projects and programs? Weren't they able to submit their ideas during one of the listening sessions set up for the general public, or via email as the Park Service made possible?
Of course, the problem with this debate is that, unless someone who attended the meetings says a priority list for centennial projects was indeed hammered out, we'll never know what exactly was discussed and whether FACA should have been followed.
What is clear, though, is the perception this retreat casts: Special interests meeting in secret, after the public comment period is closed, to influence a proposed $3 billion initiative.