Backed into a corner by legislation that threatens its existence, the Bureau of Land Management has started punching back.
The agency began an aggressive Department
of Interior campaign in late June, when acting BLM director Mike
Dombeck delivered hard-hitting testimony against the Livestock
Grazing Act before Senate and House
Dombeck, who has already made his
mark on the agency by hiring a progressive set of new state BLM
managers (HCN, 12/12/94), said the legislation sponsored by New
Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, would "set back public rangeland
management 50 years." Senate bill 852 would make grazing the
primary use of BLM lands and cut the public out of management
decisions, he said.
Dombeck also defended the
agency's new grazing regulations, Rangeland Reform "94 (HCN,
1/23/95), which resulted from two years of public discussion and
collaboration. Those rules will take effect Aug. 21 unless Congress
changes the law.
Following Dombeck's testimony,
the agency mailed out a 38-page packet to editorial writers across
the country detailing why the bills are a disaster. Articles and
editorials appearing in July around the West, including pieces in
the Salt Lake Tribune and Santa Fe Reporter, generally blasted the
legislation as extremist. The Albuquerque Journal ran an op-ed
piece by Dombeck defending the agency's new grazing
The BLM's media blitz has not gone
unnoticed by the livestock industry. Brad Little, an Idaho rancher
and public-lands chairman for the American Sheep Industry, said,
"The BLM has just gone banzai over this issue. But I can assure
you, this bill isn't the bogeyman they're making it out to be."
Bob Sears, executive director of the Idaho
Cattle Association, said the BLM's vocal opposition is so off-base
that "I'm going to nominate Mike Dombeck for the Pulitzer Prize for
The agency's newfound aggressiveness
prodded Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., to call for oversight hearings
to see if the BLM has violated laws restricting agency lobbying.
The struggle may also have jeopardized Dombeck's chances for Senate
confirmation as head of the BLM.
"I'm glad to see
them publishing information and getting the word out to the
public," says Cathy Carlson, a lobbyist with the National Wildlife
Federation. "It's the first time the agency has gotten energized
about anything since the days of Jim Baca."
Despite BLM opposition, the livestock industry's
perspective on grazing reform has prevailed so far. By an 11-9
margin, the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee passed the
Livestock Grazing Act in mid-July. A tough fight is expected when
it reaches the Senate floor.
Grazing reform isn't
the only battleground. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and Rep. Jim
Hansen, R-Utah, have introduced legislation that would turn over
management of all BLM land, water and minerals to the
In response, the BLM released a report in
late July which shows the various benefits the public reaps from
public lands. Coordinated by Celia Boddington, who worked for
congressman George Miller, D-Calif., before joining the BLM six
months ago, the report says the new bills would cost Western states
millions in federal dollars now received in the form of
firefighting, mineral royalties and Payment in Lieu of
In addition, the public lands would
eventually wind up in private hands since the states don't have the
capacity or the will to manage the public lands, the report
Johanna Wald, a senior attorney for the
Natural Resources Defense Council, says the BLM's efforts to
educate the public about these bills represent "a fight for its
life against some unbelievably radical measures. We've never seen
anything like this before. It's the context that has changed," she
adds, "not the BLM."
Whether the BLM and
environmentalists can derail the land-transfer bills or the grazing
legislation remains to be seen. But the debate has awakened a
sleepy agency - perhaps just in time to save its own neck.
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