While brainstorming with editors at NUVO for the Sept. 28 cover story on the Newport prairie controversy, I told them I love covering small-town power struggles because public officials inevitably shoot from the hip. They seldom display the political savvy of, say, a deputy director at a major state agency. By the time I had finished my reporting, the point was proven, in spades. Ditto the argument that citizen input into our democratic process has become little more than a sham.
Jack Fenoglio, for example, is president of the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority and a lifelong member of the Izaak Walton League, a conservation group whose National Director Clara Walters lives in Clinton. She has organized national support for preserving a 336-acre black-soil prairie restoration on the Newport site. When I asked Fenoglio to square his opposition to the preservation with that of the organization, he minced no words.
"The prairie issue really started with one man who kind of led the project when he was working for Mason and Hanger," the retired metallurgical engineer said. "And he has got everybody else on the bandwagon to one degree more or less. But I think a lot of the rank and file members of all these organizations that he has brought to the table probably wouldn't recognize prairie grass if they saw it."
The man Fenoglio referred to was Phil Cox, who spent 27 years working as a natural resource manager for Mason and Hanger, the Kentucky-based private contractor that managed the Newport depot's 7,100-acre base. He is past president of the Wabash Valley Audubon Society and now serves as a vice president for that group and the Oubache Land Conservancy.
Since the 1960s, the Army produced and stored deadly VX nerve agent at the World War II-era Army base. At a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13, 2011, the Army transferred the Newport property to Fenoglio's reuse authority. Its five members, appointed by the Vermillion County Commissioners, now control the base and the prairie's fates.
"I think a lot of the rank and file members of all these organizations that he has brought to the table probably wouldn't recognize prairie grass if they saw it." - Jack Fenoglio, president, Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority
And as Fenoglio told me, the prairie is dispensable, in this board's view. "It's not virgin prairie grass," he said in a Sept. 11, 2011, telephone interview. "This has been planted by man. ... It's not something that's been there for a thousand years or something. This is somebody that got a project funded by the government, and they planted prairie grass there, taking some of the best agricultural land out of production."
His comments about the 400 citizens and citizen groups that submitted official comments in support of the prairie preservation – birdwatchers, hunters, public officials and nuns among them – were equally dismissive.
"Of the 400 comments, roughly 350 of them were almost word for word same as the other 350," he said. "They may have changed the letterhead or a few words here or there, but most of those 400 comments were almost identical to the last one you read."
As for the state endangered species that inhabit the prairie, which occupies less than 5 percent of the total Newport Army base, Fenoglio's response was classic Shock Doctrine. Times are tough; and nothing is sacred, especially not plants and animals.
"The biggest and best possibility for a production plant that we have right now does not specify exactly where they want to put their plant," he said. "So we don't want to say, 'We're going to save this prairie grass here forever,' because somebody may want to put a huge plant to hire a thousand people there. It doesn't make much sense to throw away a thousand jobs to keep some wildlife alive."
The facility Fenoglio referred to is a coal liquefaction plant that would process the carbon-based, mercury-containing rock into heating oil, jet fuel, diesel fuel and utility fuel. It will take two to three years from the time a company agreed to build on Newport before construction could even begin, he said, but the process is proceeding.
A Sept. 15, 2010, news release from Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman about the "clean-coal project" said it would "mean a $3 billion investment and jobs for 500 highly skilled Hoosiers."
Almost a year to the day later, Fenoglio said the project was "looking good, up in the 90 percent success column right now."
Indiana Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) Deputy Director John Davis acknowledged his agency's role in the Newport prairie's restoration during a phone interview on Sept. 13, 2011.
"It's not virgin prairie grass. ... This is somebody that got a project funded by the government, and they planted prairie grass there, taking some of the best agricultural land out of production." - Jack Fenoglio, president, Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority
A 1994 report from the DNR Division of Nature Preserves is credited with making the prairie restoration project possible. "A restoration this large (1,900+/- acres) in this part of the Midwest is an exciting opportunity," the report concluded. Davis said the agency actively participated in the restoration, which began in 1994 and ended in 2005.
"I know we encouraged and worked with Phil and the base to plant the prairie," he said.
But while DNR in March 2009 asked for more than 5,000 acres of the Newport base for a fish and wildlife area, it never asked that the prairie be preserved, he said. His assessment of the prairie ecosystem, which his own agency has said in writing is globally threatened, was less than enthusiastic.
"I'm not a biologist or a botanist, so I'm not sure how complex the prairie is," he said. "I do know that it's an older restoration. I know it doesn't have everything we might like to put into a prairie restoration today, that we have put into prairie restorations today."
The recreated grassland there does have important symbolic value, he said. "There's not a thing wrong with that prairie there now. I think it's valuable because it has captured people's imagination and is representative of what can happen there. But it is in an unfortunate place."
That place is a patch of prime farmland in an area that has development potential. "I also understand that, given where it is situated, why the reuse authority would say they want to keep their options open," Davis said.
Times have in fact changed, he added. "I don't think you can say that circumstances today are exactly the same, and we made a decision in 1994, and now it's 17 years later, and we should just stay with that, no matter what the circumstances are."
DNR didn't get the 5,000 acres it asked for, Davis said. In fact, the agency took some criticism for requesting so much. "We asked for what we thought would be the best fish and wildlife area, and we didn't really anticipate that people would just say, 'Yes, let's do that,'" he said. "But we wanted to put it out there and say what we thought it could be."
"I know we encouraged and worked with Phil and the base to plant the prairie." - John Davis, deputy director, DNR
For a one-time payment of $10, however, DNR did get a 15-year conveyance of 1,700 acres of forest and agriculture land. The restored prairie is not included, but a new restoration is part of the plan.
"There's a big piece of ag land adjacent to the 1,100-acre big woods that's kind of in the north-central part of it," he said. "It's going to be slow, but it's going to be restored to as complex of a prairie as we can do, which is quite a bit different than the prairie that is there now."
When I read Fenoglio's characterization of the preservationists, Davis offered a more nuanced view. Cox, he said, "knows quite a bit. He's a good manager and an imaginative guy." Aside from that he had no comment. "I don't want to be in middle," he said.
Neither would he respond to Fenoglio's views on public input, specifically e-mails and form letters.
"I'm not going to comment on that, as far as how we treat some form of comment that comes in," he said. "I mean, everybody has a right to comment."
From my 30 years writing about citizen action in Indiana, Fenoglio and Davis's comments are distressing commentaries on the evolution of citizen input and the value placed on it by today's policy makers.
When I wrote for the Bloomington Herald-Times in 1994, the forest supervisor on the Hoosier National Forest told me, "You can't ignore 121,000 petitions." He said that as he withdrew a Hoosier forest management plan that designated 81 percent of the forest for clearcutting and in its place implemented the most environmentally sensitive plan in the nation.
By 2002, when the Indiana Department of Transportation received more than 21,000 public comments on its Interstate 69 Environmental Impact Statement, agency officials didn't waste time on them. They boxed them up and sent them to their consultants in Evansville, where citizen activists had to learn for themselves that 94 percent opposed the new-terrain highway.
"I don't think you can say that circumstances today are exactly the same, and we made a decision in 1994, and now it's 17 years later, and we should just stay with that, no matter what the circumstances are." - John Davis, deputy director, DNR
Today, everyone has a right to comment, as Davis said. But few in positions of power feel any obligation, or inclination, to listen or treat the public process with even feigned respect.
For example, Cox asked the Army for copies of public comments submitted on both the reuse authority's reuse plan and the Army's October 2010 Environmental Assessment. The Army stonewalled the requests, not releasing comments made in 2009 until the transfer process was completed in 2011.
And the public record he finally did receive revealed an entirely different scenario than Fenoglio's version.
The comments ranged from one-sentence demands to heartfelt pleas to detailed, multipage, scientific analyses. Some were hand-written; some were typed; some were e-mailed. All were respectful.
They came from Montezuma and Michigan City, from Center Point and Indianapolis. They were written by scientists, retirees, students, teachers and military personnel.
One came from former DNR Director John R. Goss, who is now president of the Indiana Wildlife Federation, which is affiliated with more than four dozen sportsmen groups in Indiana. Another came from the assistant director of former Newport property manager Mason and Hanger.
There were no form letters. The only redundancy in every comment was a request that a mere 336 acres of a 7,100-acre Army base be preserved for wildlife and plants that are disappearing from the planet.
A sentence from the Army's 2010 Environmental Assessment (EA) of the Newport reuse plan, however, reflects, if unwittingly, whose interests are paramount for policy makers today. Before concluding a plan that would replace an endangered ecosystem with a coal liquefaction plant would have no significant environmental impact, the Army considered input from "NeCDRA (reuse authority), real estate developers, economic development experts, members of the farming and natural resource communities, and the public."
The public is literally and symbolically last on the list. It may as well be in parentheses. It's input means nothing.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .