How the BLM is overhauling land-use planning

The agency is aiming to increase public involvement and collaboration.

 

Mary Rogers, a historical researcher for the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, left northwestern Montana’s Flathead Reservation in the middle of an April snowstorm, headed for a public meeting in downtown Missoula, 62 miles away. The Bureau of Land Management is unveiling a new approach to planning how to manage its 245 million acres, one that invites diverse viewpoints much earlier in the multi-year process, and the Missoula field office was one of the first to try it.

The spring snow became a driving rain, slowing Rogers down, and by the time she arrived, the Holiday Inn conference room was packed with people: miners, pilots and snowmobilers, who all talked about their differing priorities for the public lands. Rogers shared her hopes, too: “My ancestors used all of western Montana — to live, to play, to make sure their children were fed. I want to make sure my nieces and nephews can use it after I’m gone.”

Bringing people with different perspectives together is one of the goals of Planning 2.0, the BLM’s proposed new strategy for developing resource management plans, the big-picture blueprints that guide the agency’s on-the-ground decisions. It’s the first time in 33 years that the BLM has overhauled its planning procedures. The agency hopes to democratize planning — making it more collaborative, inclusive, transparent and reflective of landscape-wide priorities.

It’s a praiseworthy effort, says Boise State professor John Freemuth, but he cautions that, given the intensity of current struggles over public lands, an improved process can only go so far. “It has the potential to raise the trust level, but I don’t think the battling over the red-flag issues will decline. It’s sort of in the fabric of the West these days.” The BLM also needs to better train its managers to handle the complicated politics of land-use planning, Freemuth adds, because without strong leaders, “the whole thing can still fall apart.”

People attend a workshop in Greenough, Montana, with Bureau of Land Management staffers to discuss their vision for the Missoula Field Office’s Resource Management Plan.
David Abrams/BLM

The Planning 2.0 initiative came in response to the unanticipated pushback the BLM received over Bush administration plans that prioritized oil and gas drilling and motorized recreation. The BLM “always dealt with people who used public lands as businesses. All of a sudden, all these other people cared,” says Nada Culver, director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. Some controversial Bush-era plans never got finished. Others were overturned in court, and some are still being litigated.

All the conflict made planning increasingly unwieldy. And the agency was often caught off-guard by scientific data or objections it had not considered. Current BLM Director Neil Kornze described his staff’s “counterintuitive” solution — to add more opportunities for public input up front.  “Let’s start by raising our hand and saying, ‘Please bring your best information and your best science to the table,’ so that we don’t get surprised by somebody with information two-thirds down the road and have to start over — which we have to do a lot,” he told a congressional subcommittee in March. Rewriting a draft plan adds a year or two, increasing costs and devouring scarce staff time, says Shasta Ferranto, the Planning 2.0 project manager. 

Previously, the public had a chance to highlight conflicts early on. But the management plans were drafted behind closed doors by BLM staffers, and there was no   time for more feedback until a draft was finally released, sometimes years later.

Planning 2.0 would offer more chances for involvement. The BLM would provide three documents to the public after the agency got initial input and data but before it drafted a plan. One would outline the various options the agency is considering in its preliminary alternatives. Another would explain the rationale behind those options, and a third would list the scientific methods used. The rest of the process wouldn’t change much; a draft environmental impact statement and a draft plan would still be presented, triggering a formal written comment period, which the agency hopes to shorten from 90 to 60 days. Next come the final versions, then a protest period and consistency review. Finally, an approved resource management plan and record of decision would be released.

Initial reactions to Planning 2.0 have been fairly positive, says Culver. She has participated in BLM planning processes for over a dozen years and says that, previously, “a lot more was behind closed doors. There wasn’t an effort to say we’d like to hear from all
comers.”

The BLM had already begun seeking earlier public involvement to forestall conflict. The draft Moab Master Leasing Plan, for instance, which was released last August, designates which areas of southeastern Utah will be open for oil and gas development and which will be preserved for their wildlife and scenery. The BLM changed course after receiving public input; it now proposes to bar oil, gas and potash leasing near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and  in some other areas to benefit recreation and scenic views.

BLM field offices also intend to work more closely together on landscape-wide planning, especially to tackle wildfire prevention, eradication of invasive species or protection of wildlife corridors.

The resource management plan rulemaking should be finished by the end of the year, says the agency. Updates to its planning handbook will follow. But some state and county officials are complaining they didn’t have enough say in crafting Planning 2.0. In particular, they believe local county governments should still have more sway than interest groups. At a House subcommittee hearing in May, Humboldt County, Nevada, Commissioner Jim French said the 2.0 proposal “dilutes the voice” of county officials by expanding the planning to the regional level and limiting the traditional requirement that BLM plans be coordinated with county policies. A group of counties in six Western states, organized by the Texas-based American Stewards of Liberty, echoed those complaints in a letter last month to Kornze.  Planning 2.0 will be finished late in Obama’s presidency, and the kerfuffle underscores the uncertainty of its future, says Freemuth: “Goodness knows what would happen to Planning 2.0 under a President Trump.” 

Meanwhile, the Missoula field office is testing Planning 2.0. Its staff interviewed 50 stakeholders, including ranchers, mountain bikers, conservationists and representatives of mining and timber companies. Then the field office held three workshops to present a draft assessment and give the broader public a chance to respond. Staffers will use that input as baseline information for revising the plan for the 150,000 acres they
manage.

Field manager Joe Ashor says that in his 27 years with the BLM, he had never participated in anything like those interviews and workshops. He and his staff tried to convey the message that “engaging the public early and often is going to be a normal way we do business,” he says. “(In the past) we have not done a great job of developing relationships between us and the public.”

Many locals seem enthusiastic, including Gordy Sanders, resource manager of Pyramid Mountain Timber, which he says depends on public land for its “continued existence.”  In his 45-year career, Sanders says, he’s never seen the BLM seek public opinion so aggressively. Protests and litigation often delay timber harvests, and he hopes the new process will help forestall conflict. Western Montana is a good place to launch Planning 2.0, he says, because ranchers, loggers and conservation groups already work collaboratively: “We have a broad cross-section of interests that get along very well.”

Mary Rogers is also determined to stay involved. She hopes to convince the BLM and other stakeholders to protect traditional tribal practices, such as hunting and gathering wild food — especially her favorite, camas, a bulb that she says tastes like a cross between a radish and an onion. “I also want to know what other points of view are,” she says. “I do not believe there is one true way.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.