How the BLM's communication style can backfire


Land managers have a hard enough job without the repercussions of using words that leave the public confused and misled.

The latest example comes out of southwestern Idaho, a modest parcel of public land called Big Willow near the town of Payette. There, off-road vehicle riders were running roughshod on both public land and adjoining private ranch lands. It happened to be a piece of ground where a rare plant grew, Packard’s milkvetch. This plant is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Under existing rules, the BLM had no limits on off-road vehicles at Big Willow. As crowds grew on ever-more powerful machines, the land took a beating. So the agency went through a long and arduous task of limiting motorized traffic to specific areas where they would do less damage.

But the newspaper headlines rang out “BLM Closes Area To Protect Rare Plant.” That kind of news goes over poorly in the libertarian-leaning West.

Trouble is, those headlines are dead wrong. The area wasn’t closed at all. Not closed to people. People remain free to walk over every inch of it. They can hunt, ride horses, walk their dogs, bird-watch, mountain bike or camp.  Ranchers can still graze their cattle over most of the parcel, with some sensitive habitats fenced off.

The only difference is that ORV enthusiasts may no longer drive over all of it.  (There are two ORV play areas remaining nearby.)

The BLM was doing just what any prudent land manager would do — placing limits on where people can drive motor vehicles. I appreciate it when visitors to my house park in my driveway and not on my lawn. I hunt a couple of private ranches every year. The rancher tells me where I can park and I walk from there. And I thank him for keeping his land open.

The BLM wasn’t closing land, as much as trying to provide balance. It wasn’t taking away freedom, as much as no longer allowing one group’s freedom to overrun the freedom of others.  But news outlets framed the debate as people vs. milkvetch; government bureaucrats putting plants over human beings. That’s wrong, confusing and needs to change.

I can’t blame the reporter or editor, since the BLM uses the same language. When the agency announced it was putting some commonsense rules in place, it called it an “area closure.”

Public land managers are often stuck like sandwich meat between the public’s demand for freedom and the demand for responsible management. It’s a difficult, thankless job. It takes a lot of guts and perseverance for local rangers and land managers to do the right thing. The easiest thing to do is ignore problems, stay out of trouble, take home a paycheck and retire cynical.

It doesn’t help matters when the public is confused and thinks its being locked out of its land when the fact is, it is not.

A more accurate word is “limits,” not closure. As in, “vehicles limited to conserve rare plant.”

Words matter. Land managers should explain when they are conserving habitat, imposing reasonable limits, or providing balances between competing land uses. But they should choose their words carefully and do what’s right.

Correction: An original version of this post said that Payette was in southeastern Idaho, when it is actually in the southwestern part of the state. The story has been corrected.

Ben Long is a conservationist, writer and outdoorsman in Kalispell, Mont. He is senior program director for Resource Media.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Tim Mutrie
Tim Mutrie
Jul 10, 2013 03:09 AM
Interesting thesis, but the headline that's quoted and singled out for being problematic doesn't say what the writer suggests that it does... Which makes this piece rather poignant just the same.
Ben Long
Ben Long
Jul 11, 2013 11:19 AM
Thanks Tim. The headline was changed from the original form. The magic of the internet! Here's how the BLM framed the issue in a news release two years ago: "BLM Hosts Discussion of Closure of Public Lands in Payette County to Protect Rare Plant." Pour gasoline ... light match ... combine.
Tim Mutrie
Tim Mutrie
Jul 16, 2013 12:10 PM
hi ben, thanks for the clarification. i was intrigued by your piece and do agree with your thesis generally, but then, yes, perhaps magic o' internet as you suggested... i've encountered similar problems with imprecise language in my own reporting. so i think it's a good issue for citizens, reporters and land managers to be aware of and sensitive to. in the controversial thompson divide area near mcclure pass and carbondale (in western colo.), for example, we've got newspapers (and senators) routinely describing the lands as "pristine," which drives gas industry folks batty b/c they feel it's an unfair or inaccurate characterization. HCN recently published a piece (unrelated to the gas issue) about how cows are helping to reclaim lands in the coal basin section of the zone. the area, a former coal mine, was described accurately to my mind, but in such a way that hardly seems to support calling it "pristine": "You can't really mess this area up any more (than it already is)."
Mark & Cheryl Brunson
Mark & Cheryl Brunson Subscriber
Jul 16, 2013 02:53 PM
Ben, I can't disagree that bureaucratic jargon (in the BLM or elsewhere) often creates confusion that ultimately enhances public distrust. But I disagree about letting editors and reporters off the hook. At different times you and I each held the same job as a small-daily reporter covering environmental topics. We knew our stuff, we learned the jargon and explained what it meant. Today editorial staffs are smaller and the environment is rarely a "beat." Too many reporters, due to lack of time or lack of interest, take time to learn what's really going on in the stories they report. They can do better. ... By the way, your driveway analogy is great - I'll try to remember to use it in my teaching.
Mark & Cheryl Brunson
Mark & Cheryl Brunson Subscriber
Jul 16, 2013 02:54 PM
Oops. That sentence should have read "Too few reporters ... ."
Ben Long
Ben Long
Jul 25, 2013 03:12 PM
good points, Mark & Cheryl. Reporters have a hard job and I hate to pick on them individually. But at the end of the day, their job is to clearly and accurately describe what is going on. Too many simply mimic the language of whatever press release is before them, or nowadays, just cut-and-paste.
Ben Long
Ben Long
Jul 25, 2013 03:15 PM
Tim, Alas, now that there's a puddle at the North Pole and PCBs in the ice at the South Pole, "pristine" is a word we can no longer use to describe the land at all. Perhaps RELATIVELY pristine?
Pam Bond
Pam Bond Subscriber
Jul 29, 2013 02:42 PM
Payette is actually in Southwest Idaho.