The new voice at BLM

  • IN CHARGE: Thomas Fry

  Dallas lawyer Thomas A. Fry III talks and acts like a guy who's in charge, but in reality, he's "acting" director of the Bureau of Land Management. The 54-year-old Fry is the second acting director of the BLM in five years. Mike Dombeck supervised the BLM for three years as acting director before becoming chief of the Forest Service in 1997.


Fry held various appointments in the Department of the Interior and was vice president of a Dallas natural gas company before serving as deputy BLM director under Pat Shea, who had made the leap from acting director to confirmed by Congress.


An ongoing policy rift between the Clinton White House and a Republican-controlled Congress has kept some BLM bosses in title limbo.


"We've not exactly had an easy time with getting our BLM directors appointed by Congress," says Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. When Dombeck was nominated as BLM director, Babbitt said, a hostile Congress snubbed Interior and the White House.


Dombeck's predecessor, Jim Baca of New Mexico, was appointed as director but got squeezed out after only nine months for crossing Western governors on grazing and bombing range issues. This time around, the Clinton administration has yet to officially nominate Fry; a decision is expected in mid-May.


"I've told Tom to speak and act as if he's the full-fledged director, and he's doing just that," Babbitt says.


The lack of a full title does make a difference in the BLM's stature and in employee morale, says John Freemuth, political science professor at Boise State University. Neither the Clinton administration nor Congress could get away with leaving an unconfirmed director in charge of the National Park Service or Forest Service, he says.


"The signal it sends is that it isn't important enough to get a full-fledged director in here," Freemuth says. "To the employees, you wonder how much stock to put in a guy who's just "acting." "


Babbitt says, "The BLM hasn't had the constituency to demand more respect from Congress. But I think that's changing."


At a recent conference in Boise, Idaho, Fry championed the BLM as the new "open space agency." He said it needed to protect recreation areas and wildlife habitat in cooperation with cities such as Las Vegas, Boise, Idaho and Durango, Colo.


Fry also urges his employees to be bold. "Everyone in the BLM should have a get-out-of-jail-free card," Fry said. "Nobody's going to be slapped down for making tough decisions."


* Stephen Stuebner