Extreme Makeover, the BLM episode

How a gigantic federal bureaucracy is positioning itself to manage resources at a “landscape” level.

 

No,  Planning 2.0 is not outdated tax software for your 1998 dinosaur of a PC. It’s the Bureau of Land Management’s attempt to add sanity, balance and nimbleness to the unwieldy and time-consuming process (yeah, still sounds like tax stuff, just bear with me) of updating resource management plans that govern what happens on millions of acres of public land.

It might sound boring, but it’s definitely important: If done well, it could give the agency tools to do a much better job protecting swaths of habitat and wildlife migration corridors that cross field office boundaries and state lines, siting and regulating development to avoid conflicts with people and sensitive ecosystems, changing course to meet new challenges on the ground, gathering and incorporating public input and heading off frustrating rounds of litigation, among other things.

On Wednesday, the agency held a public listening session in Golden, Colorado to introduce the effort to change planning rules and practices, which would include setting “landscape level priorities” and tiering all management to them. A who’s who of environmental activists, sportsmen’s groups, offroading advocates, farmer’s groups, energy company representatives, local officials and dozens of others turned out to provide feedback.

The basic gist, explained BLM planning and environmental analyst Shasta Ferranto, is that the agency is hoping to institutionalize and make system-wide things that have worked well in individual innovative planning efforts. One example is the agency’s landscape-level assessment of how utility scale solar power plant development would affect lands it manages across the Southwest, which fed into an effort to create zones where that development could take place with faster permitting away from environmentally sensitive areas. Another example might be the BLM’s attempts to protect dwindling sagegrouse populations by developing consistent monitoring protocols, habitat safeguards and mitigation frameworks across the species' 11-state range in cooperation with the Forest Service and other agencies, added Joe Stout, BLM planning division chief. The agency and others hope that work will help keep the chicken-sized bird from needing protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Sage grouse range
This map of sage grouse range shows why landscape level planning and coordination between agencies is important. Courtesy of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

For many attendees, the key test of this effort’s value will be whether the BLM uses it to better balance the current explosion of oil and gas development with other land uses and values, from wildlife conservation to protecting air and water quality. If that happens, though, it likely won’t be through a landscape-level zoning effort. “That would be difficult to do just because of the lay of the land for oil and gas,” Stout said: In areas where companies already hold leases to vast tracts of mineral rights underlying federal land, “our ability to make change is really limited.”

For now, it seems, the planning enterprise is so abstract it's difficult to judge. "We were trying to figure out whether this was just activity or actual progress," Kate Zimmerman of the National Wildlife Federation said after the meeting. But others were more hopeful: “What I heard was that so many people want to believe this could work,” said The Wilderness Society's Nada Culver: “That you could look across a landscape at watersheds or wildlife corridors or wilderness, and make good decisions. Everybody wants the BLM to be able to do it, and they want to help the agency get there.”

If you want to help it get there, there will be a second listening session in Sacramento, California on October 7, in part because of another collaborative, landscape-level effort the BLM hopes to draw on, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. The agency expects to post a report compiling suggestions from the two meetings on its website by early November. Then, a formal rule change proposal should be out this spring or summer, followed by a public comment period.

Sarah Gilman is a High Country News contributing editor. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman.