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Audio: A BLM insider speaks

Rodger Schmitt talks about why he resigned his position as national recreation director.

 

Rodger Schmitt served as the national recreation director for the BLM from 1997-2003, resigning because he felt he couldn't properly do his job under the Bush administration. He has 33 years of experience working in recreation programs on public lands, including stints as a park manager and park ranger. He spoke with HCN's Emily Steinmetz in November.

For an edited text of the interview, see below.

 

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High Country News:
Could you talk about why you left the BLM in 2003?

Rodger Schmitt:
Well, I had enough time in and the right age to retire. But my plans were to stay, because I really enjoyed my work, and I had a great staff. I left earlier than I had planned because it was clear to me that the administrative responsibilities thrust upon us by the Bush administration were making it difficult to accomplish our work. We weren’t always able to factor in both sides of the issue in a lot of the work we were doing.

HCN:
Do you have any specific examples?

RS:
I do. I don’t want to mention names except perhaps one name, because he’s already been found guilty of something: Steven Griles. I worked on some projects directly with him, and met with him. And I just found him to be very negative toward what the agency was supposed to do. He leaned very heavily on the opinions of people who were our responsibility to regulate, who had a responsibility to live up to certain standards. And it was his goal, it seemed to me, to forward their personal interests over the interests of the agency, and the responsibilities of the agency. I actually got a document from him with his initials on it saying: do what this person tells you to do. That was very inappropriate, I thought, for an assistant secretary of Interior. That’s one example.

Other examples include developing regulations for activities on the public lands. We spent a lot of our time just pushing back against a tide of Republican attempts to put the onus on the federal government for regulation and not on those who were being regulated. In other words, when regulations were developed -- and in many cases those regulations were drafted by the people who were being regulated -- the regulation drafts were very difficult for us to swallow because they really let the permittee off the hook. They tried to push through regulations that allowed them to pretty much do what they wanted, without having any responsibility or consequences. So we had to try to change the drafts of those regulations to make them more in line with what the stewardship responsibilities of the agency really were. And after a number of years of doing that, it just got very difficult to see that it was ever going to change.

HCN:
For people who don’t know a lot about the BLM’s mission, if you could say in what ways they were trying to subvert that mission in your view?

RS:
The BLM is a multiple use agency, and that distinguishes it from, say, the Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service which have more specific mandates for conservation and preservation. BLM allows multiple use, but not necessarily on every single piece of land. In various locations on public lands, we permit both oil and gas drilling and mining activities, as well as wilderness and wild and scenic rivers and recreation use. I felt that in reaching out to our constituents in the field, the Bush administration leaned heavily on the opinions of their benefactors, I would call them, people who were contributors to the Republican Party or who were politically attuned to where the administration was. And that happens with every administration, but it seemed that it was much more intense with the Bush administration, and the political people that they appointed in the agencies reached further down into the agencies and tried to direct things at a lower level than I’d ever been used to before. When you get people in the field who have a vested interest in using the public lands for their own personal benefits – outfitters and guides, ranchers, miners, oil and gas drillers, that sort of thing – if they’re the only ones that are being listened to on a certain issue, you tend to get skewed results from your planning, and you get skewed results from permits that are issued, and it makes it difficult to manage the permits and enforce the restrictions in permits if you don’t get support from above. And that is typically what would happen at the BLM.

HCN:
One thing we’ve been hearing at High Country News is that morale among a lot of BLM employees has been low over the past eight years and the agency has been losing a lot of good and experienced people. Is this something you witnessed during your time there or heard about since you left?

RS:
Well, I can speak to what the feeling was when I left in 2003, and that was after a little over two years under the Bush administration. And certainly, most of the people I talked with, people I worked with over that two-year period, really were feeling some of the same kinds of constraints that I did. I’m not talking about people just in my particular recreation group, but just in general, both in the Washington office and out in the field, people felt it was very difficult for them to do their jobs because they got pushed in certain directions that made it difficult for them to be fair about judging comments from the public and incorporating those comments in the planning documents and into regulatory guidelines. It required people who really had a real desire to do the right thing to work twice as hard to accomplish their responsibilities for stewardship of the public lands, and developing policy and developing planning guidelines. They had to work twice as hard to push back against a tide that wanted to roll over them.

HCN:
Looking to the future, what positive changes would you hope to see take place in the BLM from an Obama administration?

RS:
Well, I hope that they spend some time really learning what the basic mission of the agency is and trying to foster a fair approach to all multiple use resource responsibilities and not put emphasis on one or two that are, for instance, resource development oriented only. I’m a believer in being fair about multiple use. I think there’s a place for oil and gas drilling, there’s a place for mining, there’s a place for off-road vehicle use in the agency, it just needs to be managed properly. It needs to be allowed in the places where it does the least amount of damage, but still provides for an opportunity. But I think this administration pushed the pendulum way far toward the resource extractive side of things and away from being more concerned about protecting the resources and providing opportunities for people in the non-extractive side of the responsibility of the agency.

HCN:
Are there ways that an Obama administration could perhaps boost morale or improve employee retention or recruit some of the good and experienced employees that they lost during the last eight years?

RS:
I’m not sure they could bring people back. It depends on what their intent is for recruitment. My guess is that they’ll want to bring in newer, younger folks rather than some of the gray beards that left. If the Obama folks would spend some time talking to people who have some experience, both who are currently employed and who may have been in the past, and just picking their brains and getting ideas from them, I think that would be a big plus from the professional side of the agency, and it would be a big help toward boosting the morale.

HCN:
If you could talk very briefly about your job working for accessibility for persons with disabilities on public lands, I know that’s been an issue.

RS:
Well, my responsibilities as the director of the recreation program included the accessibility program: making sure that the facilities out in the field were properly built and managed and maintained for persons with disabilities. I didn’t see as much negative pushing from above not to do the job, it was more a factor of not having the funding to accomplish everything that needed to be done. And that was typical in general of Republican administrations. If they couldn’t change the policies of the programs, what they would do is just un-fund the administration of the programs. And that effectively prohibited the agency from managing the program properly.

HCN:
Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you would like to add?

RS:
I read a lot about people in the agency getting picked on for not doing their job right, or for not being willing to move in one direction or another. It’s difficult, because they want to do the right thing but when they get pressured from one direction or the other, it’s very difficult to push back. Many people do push back, but you can only push back so far before you end up getting removed from your position or transferred or whatever. So I think people need to remember that it’s not just the responsibility of the professional in the field, it’s also the policy guidelines that push them in certain directions.

HCN:
That’s an important point. A lot of the BLM folks I’ve talked to seem like they’re very earnestly trying to do good work and feel like they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place at times.

RS:
I certainly would stack up BLM employees in their professionalism on the top of the list with any other agency people. They’re not better than other agency people, but they’re as professional, and they want to do the right thing as much as anybody in government. And I worked in the Washington office with all the other land management agencies, so I have some experience seeing how things happen outside the agency as well.

HCN:
How did the role of public servant change during your time in the BLM?

RS:
The Reagan administration came in with this really negative attitude about federal employees. They changed their mind over time, but I think that attitude came back in spades with the Bush administration. And in meetings I sat in with the political appointees, in the department and in my agency, they really had very little respect for federal employees. They just came in with an agenda and it didn’t matter what reality was, they were going to push that agenda. So I think people in the agency had to work very, very hard to overcome this negative push from above. And I have to hand it to employees who stayed very professional, even with that kind of pressure put upon them.