Lake Tahoe, Nevada - Fifteen months after taking over at Interior, and a few months after suffering demoralizing defeats in the U.S. Senate and among his environmental supporters, a confident, energetic Bruce Babbitt came to Lake Tahoe to put his stamp on the Bureau of Land Management.
occasion was the first-ever BLM Summit: a gathering of 337
Washington heads, state directors and district and area managers
joined by 64 invited guests and two members of the press. The
purpose of the summit, never explicitly stated by the organizers,
was to create a national organization out of what is now 11 state
The effort to merge these 11
organizations was begun by former BLM director Jim Baca. But Baca
was jettisoned on Feb. 3, perhaps because of "style" or because
Babbitt needed to throw a sacrifice to the Western governors during
his darkest hours, or because Baca insisted on running the BLM
instead of deferring to Babbitt and his assistant, Tom Collins.
Judging by the April 25 to April 28 summit,
which Baca conceived, his work continues, although with different
rhetoric and style.
Babbitt, like Baca, wants
to turn the $1 billion per year agency into a single outfit
following a national program rather than a series of mining,
grazing and oil and gas programs dictated by Western industries,
Western governors and the individual congressional delegations.
To nationalize the BLM, Babbitt must confront
its key players: state directors who run their outfits as kingdoms,
accountable in only the broadest terms to national direction.
Babbitt acknowledged the power of the state
directors: "I'd like to change that, but not by drawing
administrative powers back to Washington, D.C., and not by
terrorizing the state directors. I want to do it by sending outward
a shared vision and by delegating responsibility" to line managers
and staff on the ground.
The secretary said
that at a press conference following his 7 a.m. speech to the 400
summit attendees on Wednesday, April 27, the third day of the
conference. During the speech itself, he had jabbed at two state
directors who, Babbitt felt, had exceeded their authority. But the
bulk of Babbitt's talk was confined to describing his general
approach to the West's problems, and how the BLM and other federal
agencies can help solve those problems.
Babbitt didn't arrive at Lake Tahoe a moment
too soon. The summit, which cost $243,300 for room, board and
speakers' fees, had started off with a bang on Monday afternoon,
with talks by Charles Jordan, director of Oregon's Parks and
Recreation Department, University of Colorado historian Patricia
Nelson Limerick and University of Colorado law professor Charles
Wilkinson, especially, had drawn
blood by reminding the BLMers that they were about to lose 3
million acres of land in California's Mojave desert to the National
Park Service because they and their agency had not protected the
land. He then warned the BLM that it faced the same fate on the
Colorado Plateau, where the agency's failure to protect almost 80
million acres means that it could eventually also lose that land.
But after the strong opening talks, the summit
began to fade. Both Interior Assistant Secretary Bob Armstrong and
acting BLM director Mike Dombeck are well liked by rank and file
managers. Armstrong, who each day appeared in a less formal outfit,
until one expected him to appear naked, is the original good old
boy politician from Texas. He told a series of increasingly funny
jokes, and he managed to talk one-on-one to almost every staff
member and visitor in attendance. He is the "humanistic" member of
Interior's top political appointees, one BLMer said, and was
rewarded at the end of the meeting by a standing ovation.
And when Babbitt opened his Wednesday morning
talk by saying he was pleased with acting director Dombeck and saw
him staying in office a long time, the audience applauded
But neither Armstrong nor
Dombeck could articulate a vision. So the summit lay fallow
Babbitt brought it to life Wednesday
by marching the audience through three of the issues he has
grappled with over the last year: the Everglades, range reform and
Northwest forests. Rather than put a happy face on those events,
Babbitt acknowleged the battering he had taken and used it to
identify with the on-the-ground
"None of your good
deeds will go unpunished. You will be vilified from every corner.
When flailing you bloody, no one will talk to your kids in the
Babbitt had given his enemies and
then his friends in the West ample opportunities to flail him
bloody. Instead of delegating to his staff, and then coming in when
a situation needed a touch from the top, over the last year Babbitt
appeared intent on singlehandedly solving every problem in the
nation. He was on a plane non-stop, jetting from the Everglades in
the Southeast to the forests of the Northwest, with stops in
between to talk to ranchers and land developers.
Perhaps the most quixotic of his efforts took place in Albuquerque,
where, apparently on the spur of the moment, he interceded in a
fight over Petroglyph National Monument. When he fell on rocks in
the Petroglyphs and cut his head, the Indians said he was being
punished by the spirits for considering a road through a sacred
place. But out of that chaotic, painful year he has now forged a
new vision and strategy for the West.
Babbitt took office in January 1993 with
optimism that exceeded even that of his fellow environmentalists.
He came in assuming that the West had changed character during the
Reagan-Bush years, and that it wanted to reform grazing, mining,
logging and water development.
But when he
began to implement grazing reform, he ran into fierce opposition,
vilified first by ranchers and Western senators, and then, when he
began to tack to and fro, by environmentalists and congressmen like
George Miller, D-Calif., and Mike Synar, D-Okla. Babbitt had
already been defeated in the West by the Western governors and in
the Senate by the Western senators when he fired Baca in early
February, and earned himself a beating from most major
After his defeat in the
Senate, and his decision to come to Colorado to negotiate grazing
reform, he told Frank Clifford of the Los Angeles Times that he'd
been wrong in his optimistic vision of a New West. There were no
armies of reformers waiting at the grass roots in New Mexico and
Colorado and Utah and Wyoming to push through major legislative
changes. But he didn't tell the LA Times what view of the West had
replaced his optimistic one.
He did that in Lake
Tahoe on April 27. There is still a New West, he said, but in
addition to having many additional environmentally minded
residents, it is also an increasingly crowded, contentious place
where people are elbowing one another over each acre of land.
"In the West that we live in,
the empty spaces are filling up. Empty space used to buffer
conflict," and allow Westerners to create parks and wilderness
areas without interfering with other uses.
now, he said, "Any management decision runs smack into existing
uses. It means complexity and conflict. And it means that any
"reform and change will be a hard-won process. This forces us to
take a longer and more complex view."
creation of a strategy to deal with the congested, contentious West
is complicated by the U.S. Senate. On April 20, the Senate Energy
and Natural Resources Committee called Babbitt on the carpet for
four hours to extract an unconditional surrender from him on
grazing, mining, logging and water issues. Senators Malcolm Wallop,
R-Wyo., Larry Craig, R-Idaho, Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Pete
Domenici, R-N.M., questioned him for hours. So many hours, in fact,
that chairman Bennett Johnston, D-La., handed the gavel over to the
Western senators and he, and the press, left for
The result was a standoff, indicating
that Babbitt may have put the grazing reform issue behind him, and
that his commute to Colorado eight times has defused the "war on
the West" rhetoric that had been the Western senators' major
staple. Sen. Domenici, for example, gave a relatively mild opening
statement at the hearing, and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, praised his
efforts on range reform.
Overall, the Western
senators failed to dent Babbitt. So well did Babbitt do, in his
staff's judgment, that they are sending copies of the four-hour
hearing to Interior's agency offices and to anyone else who asks.
Even a draw would be welcome at Interior, which has been badly
bloodied in the past in the U.S. Senate.
Babbitt can stand up to the Western senators
because he believes he has a West-wide strategy that goes around
the Congress. He calls it Club
"We need to reorganize
ourselves in the federal establishment. Jurisdictional boundaries -
the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the
Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management - are a lot less
important. We need to come together at the federal level and
recognize our responsibility to the president and to the lands."
In Babbitt's Club Fed, agencies work together.
Babbitt is setting the example. "I threw away my speech trashing
the Army Corps of Engineers. Full of contrition, more or less, I
went over to the Corps' to ask for help. "And they've joined in and
become one of the lead innovators." Babbitt also said he is the
first secretary of Interior who doesn't harbor an ambition to
snatch the Forest Service back into Interior.
That is because Babbitt has a larger ambition. For example, "On
grazing, we have a good, tight relationship with the Forest
Service. And we've invited in the Environmental Protection Agency,
which has been scarce in the West." He said he is also trying to
transform Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service from its present
pariah status among other federal agencies. Because the Fish and
Wildlife Service was a perpetual outsider under Reagan-Bush,
Babbitt said, it evolved the following
"You guys (the other
agencies) go and do all this stuff, and then we'll look at it and
tell you it's unacceptable." Now, Babbitt said, he wants to bring
the agency into natural resource issues early on, as a
At his press conference, Babbitt
told the reporters, "The most under-reported story is how the
Forest Service and Interior came together to make the Northwest
forest plan. Compare it to the 1980s, when the Forest Service, the
BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service were standing in separate
corners in Judge Dwyer's courtroom blaming each other for gridlock.
Now, the federal boundaries have literally been erased in
Washington, Oregon and northern California."
The effectiveness of the cooperation will be tested, he said, in
mid-May, when "Judge Dwyer will make a momentous decision" on the
old growth plan.
In Florida, where the goal is
to return adequate and clean water to Everglades National Park,
Babbitt said, "When sugar companies blocked us in the Congress, we
went to the state legislature in Tallahassee and last week we got a
across the federal establishment, and working down to the community
level. We can't get 100 percent, but the direction is important."
While the goal on issues - starting with
grazing - is consensus, it is not a cure all. "If consensus doesn't
work, so be it. It will be our job to make a decision. Consensus
isn't a panacea. We're not going to have Paris Peace Accords in a
(grazing) war that has been going on since 1906."
Babbitt's Club Fed approach has not been
implemented everywhere. If the biggest successful example of agency
cooperation is the old-growth forest issue, the Northwest is also
the scene of its biggest failure, where the agencies have failed to
come together on salmon recovery.
The point of
Club Fed is to make ecosystem management possible on a landscape
scale. In the Northwest, that requires the two major land
management agencies - the BLM and Forest Service - to cooperate
with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the three states, and the
In the Everglades, it requires the
agency that channelized rivers leading into the Everglades to
restore those rivers, while the Environmental Protection Agency
cleans up the water flowing into the park off the sugar cane farms.
And in grazing reform, it calls for the Forest
Service and BLM to work with ranchers and environmentalists to
restore riparian areas and weed- and brush-covered former
The BLM Summit was set in the Tahoe
Basin, an area crying out for ecosystem management. According to
BLM firecrews, who ran the shuttles between the summit's two
hotels, about 25 percent of the trees in the basin are dead or
dying. Residents of homes and condominiums in the basin don't like
the smoke that controlled burning creates. So the basin has been
without even small fires to clear out deadfall for a decade. With
Smokey Bear, rather than ecosystem management, in charge of the
basin, the potential for a basin-wide conflagration is building.
In addition to providing an
overview of agency cooperation and ecosystem management, Babbitt
focused on the BLM. "Mike Dombeck is the acting director. And the
more Mike acts, the more I like him and think he's going to be with
us for a long time."
Babbitt also spoke to his
audience about the power of the state BLM directors. "My gift to
Oregon was getting Dean Bibles out." Bibles, a powerful Oregon
state director, had pushed hard under Bush to clearcut the BLM's 2
million acres of old-growth forest, thereby playing a key role in
the Northwest forest train wreck Babbitt is trying to prybar loose.
But Bibles had formerly been state director in Arizona, where he
had worked closely with then-Gov. Babbitt on a series of land
trades that made hash out of public process and, some say, gave
away valuable BLM land close to Phoenix for less valuable distant
land (HCN, 6/18/89).
Perhaps because of that
earlier relationship with Babbitt, his partner in those land deals,
Bibles has made two runs at the BLM directorship, losing out first
to Baca and now to Dombeck. He may have failed because, in the
past, Babbitt was just another Western governor taking advantage of
the BLM's pattycake relationship with the states. Now Babbitt is
secretary of Interior, responsible for imposing a national
perspective on the West's public lands.
whatever reason, Bibles recently left the Oregon state directorship
to head a land-exchange office with Interior - but not the BLM - in
Washington. He was not invited to the summit.
After his jab at Bibles, Babbitt said of the 15-year state director
of California's BLM land: "Ed Hastey is the viceroy of California.
He occasionally deigns to tell me what he's doing. I saw him in
Washington, D.C., recently. "What are you doing here?" I
"'Oh, I'm opposing the
California Desert Bill." "
Applause came from
the audience, which resents the 3 million-acre loss to the National
Park Service. But Babbitt has supposedly been ordered by the White
House to support the bill, which is important to the reelection
campaign of Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. So he wasn't pleased to
find Hastey lobbying against the bill.
said later, also in a half-joking way, that he had spent the winter
in Alaska, where Babbitt had sent him on special assignment to keep
him from lobbying on the Mojave Desert bill.
The tug of war with Bibles and Hastey is symbolic of the BLM's
situation across the nation. For example, wander from BLM district
lands run by the Grand Junction, Colo., office a few feet across
the state line into the BLM lands run by the Moab, Utah, office,
and you are in a different administrative world.
The Colorado BLM builds trails and tries to
create a corridor of public land along the Colorado River. The Moab
BLM fights environmentalists at Comb Wash when they try to get cows
out of a rich archaeological and riparian area (HCN, 1/24/94).
In Colorado, state director Bob Moore is more
or less in step with Colorado's environmental values. In Utah,
state director James Parker, who is retiring, is in step with the
anti-environmental values of Utah's state government and
The Forest Service,
National Park Service and other federal agencies try to soften the
states' influence by having regions and regional directors that
straddle all or parts of several states. It's no sure defense, as
John Mumma, former regional director of the Forest Service, and
Lorraine Mintzmyer, former regional director of the Park Service,
discovered. Several Western senators ganged up on their Yellowstone
Vision Document, and on them (HCN, 10/7/91). But the regional
The BLM, however, was designed
to be strongly responsive to state needs. Reorganization into
regions is impossible at present because it would require
congressional approach. A strong command-and-control strategy
centered in Washington, D.C., would not require the Congress, but
Babbitt rejects that approach.
emphasis is on turning the BLM from current top-down control -
where the "top" is the state director - into an agency where power
lies with the district (roughly comparable to a national forest)
and area (roughly comparable to a Forest Service ranger district)
staffs, out in the field, operating according to a shared national
vision of ecosystem management. Hence, Babbitt's swats at Bibles
and Hastey and the extraordinary attention paid by top Interior and
BLM staff to the district and area managers, throughout this
Assistant Secretary Armstrong, and director Dombeck are also
favored by circumstance: Seven of the 12 state directors have been
moved, retired or announced they will retire. Bibles has been
replaced by Elaine Zielinski, the first woman state director. Other
promotions have not yet been made.
The BLM will
be hard put to find new directors capable of helping to change the
BLM's direction. For the most part, the BLM staff just below the
present directors come from the same school as the retirees. The
new breed of BLMer is generally several levels below the associate
director level, and not yet ready to be jumped into a state
director's office. So one test for Babbitt and company will be
their ability to find competent replacements for present directors.
That may mean going outside the agency.
their task is made easier by the newly emerging culture of the BLM,
thanks in part to the presence of a growing number of women and
minorities. One woman at the meeting said, "The bathroom is crowded
during breaks. We look at each other and ask: "Is this really the
Even those at the summit who didn't go
into the women's bathroom could ask: Is this really the BLM? An
outsider attending past BLM meetings sometimes felt like the
civilian at a police convention. The federal officials were polite,
but blank, impassive, guarded. Unless the visitor was a rancher, it
was very definitely "them" and "us."
managers with those traditional attitudes were at the summit. But a
much more open, much less guarded tone was set by the new people,
some of whom have been with the agency for a decade, and by some
veterans. A surprising number wore buttons throughout the summit
warning against the us-them attitude.
woman who spoke of the crush in the bathroom said, "The women and
minorities have made a difference. But we couldn't have done
anything without the young white males, many of whom also came in
with a more open attitude."
One speaker, Utah
State University forestry professor Jim Kennedy, said the new
BLMers bring cat loyalty to the organization - a loyalty to issues
and to their personal lives - as opposed to the older employees'
dog-like loyalty to the organization. But Kennedy said that it
would be a mistake to give up on older employees. Some of them, he
said, harbor enormous personal pain because of awareness of the
damage they've done to the land and often to themselves by blindly
serving the BLM. As the atmosphere at the agency changes, Kennedy
said, their experience and emerging self-knowledge may prove
The BLMers apparently went home happy
despite meeting days that began at dawn and went until long past
dinner. (The management at Tahoe's Hyatt Regency complained that
the hotel's casino was dead during the summit.) They gave standing
ovations to Babbitt and, at the meeting's close, to Armstrong. And
they know they attended a historic event. In the future, the summit
will be pointed to either as a place where the BLM changed, or
where the BLM promised change, but failed.
The immediate responsibility lies with Babbitt
and his team. They face tough decisions on the Owyhee bombing
range, favored by Gov. Cecil Andrus, D-Idaho, and on a gas pipeline
through Wyoming's historic South Pass, favored by Gov. Mike
Sullivan, the Democratic candidate for Wallop's Senate seat.
Even more important will be their reaction when
a district or area manager makes an on-the-ground decision that
angers a Western senator, or the state director. Former director
Baca micro-managed the agency, interceding to protect any
ground-level employee who had angered his or her BLM superior. But
Dombeck told the summit that he would not try to directly manage
11,000 employees and 270 million acres. Instead, he said, he would
hold state directors responsible if ecosystem management is not
Assistant Secretary Armstrong, in
a conversation, said the inefficiency of the BLM under Reagan and
Bush gives the current BLM management running room. In the last
year, he said, the BLM has issued more oil and gas leases than in a
year under Bush. The key, according to Armstrong, was to discourage
leasing in environmentally sensitive areas, but make leasing in
already-developed areas more efficient.
Babbitt supplied the vision and BLM line managers the spirit at the
summit, the details are still lacking. The major questions among
BLM employees at the meeting centered on reorganization: How was
the agency to change its budgeting and hierarchy to strengthen the
ground and encourage ecosystem management? The silence from
Armstrong and Dombeck - even in response to direct questions from
the floor one evening - was deafening.
approach is also hampered by the lack of vision and consensus
across the West. Babbitt often seems to be the only Westerner in
high position to think and speak broadly about the region. The
West's senators and governors seem blind to the future and able
only to see the past. And while Forest Service Chief Jack Ward
Thomas is an immense improvement over his predecessor, Thomas'
boss, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, shows no interest in the
West's public lands. And that makes the Forest Service less able to
Although there are obstacles to
transforming the BLM, the agency has impressive strengths, and
showed courage in staging its summit. In addition to a growing
internal diversity, the BLM invited 64 guests - from Johanna Wald
of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who specializes in suing
the agency, to People for the West! - to the Summit. The BLM also
tried to attract the press, but succeeded only for the few hours
Babbitt was on hand.
By comparison, the Forest
Service kept its two 1980s summits, nicknamed Vatican I and Vatican
II, tightly sealed against visitors and press. A coming leadership
meeting of Chief Thomas, the deputy chiefs, the regional foresters
and the forest supervisors will also be closed.
Ed Marston is publisher of
High Country News.