From under a blanket of snow, the Miles City, Mont., Bureau of Land Management office should be preparing for spring. Ranchers need permits to send their sheep into pasture. Roads that have decayed over winter need repairs. Outfitters need permits for spring river trips, and mining companies want their environmental assessments completed.
But the BLM isn't ready;
it's playing catch-up from the last furlough and anticipating the
"The uncertainty is
overwhelming," says Miles City BLM's Marilyn
Nearly 3,000 miles away, Congress isn't
preparing for spring either. Lawmakers have been sent home until
Feb. 25 to campaign for the fall election.
budget talks at a standstill, some environmentalists are claiming a
bittersweet victory: None of the riders tacked on to the Interior
Appropriations Act by the Republican majority have become law. They
include bills that would mandate timber cuts in the Tongass
National Forest in Alaska, narrow the scope of the Columbia River
Basin Ecosystem Management Project and prevent it from using some
scientific data, cut the Park Service budget for the Mojave
National Preserve to $1 and transfer authority of the preserve to
Not having a budget since October has
taken a toll on land management agencies. "They feel correctly like
they are pawns in the game," says Wilderness Society staffer Karl
After newspapers printed photos of angry
tourists standing outside the locked gates of national parks,
Republicans and the Clinton administration were determined not to
let that part of government shut down a third time. On Jan. 6
Congress guaranteed a full year of funding for visitors' services
for the BLM and national parks, such as the Grand Canyon and
Yellowstone. It left funding for the rest of Interior's programs
Congress picked the high-profile
programs that received the most criticism for being closed during
the furlough and funded them, says Interior Department spokeswoman
But the BLM does more than
help tourists visit public land. Its field offices are wedded to
the small communities adjacent to the 270 million acres it
administers. Low-profile daily operations, such as grazing and
recreation, are intricately woven into local economies.
* Spokesman for the Montana BLM office Greg
Allbright says they are hesitant to issue grazing leases since the
agency may not have the money to make sure the land is not
overgrazed. "Can we start grazing if we can't stop it?" he
* In Ely, Nev., District Manager Gene
Kolkman says he now turns down ranchers' requests to do range
improvement, work on riparian areas, or build fences because his
office can't do the necessary environmental studies.
* Idaho State Director Martha Hahn says the
agency may have to back out of restoration projects that are
planned in partnership with private groups because she doesn't want
to make contracts past March. She is especially nervous that the
agency won't be prepared for the summer fire season.
* In Grand Junction, Colo., individuals wishing
to contract with the BLM to catch wild horses must wait until the
agency has a budget, says District Manager Mark Morris.
Morale is at rock bottom. "The feeling is even
if we get a budget it will be less than we need to operate on,"
says Miles City's Kraus.
The BLM thought the
anxiety would end Jan. 26. But a bipartisan leadership committee
negotiated yet another continuing resolution which extended funding
for the agency until March 15 - although at a lower level than its
1995 budget. Republicans Sen. Slade Gorton, Wash., and Rep. Ralph
Regula, Ohio, proposed another Interior Appropriations Act in early
February, but the administration rejected it and the two camps
remain at an impasse. Some D.C. analysts say that there is a slight
chance of an appropriation this year, but the agencies will most
likely be strung along until the elections.
Some environmentalists say Republicans want to keep funding from
continuing resolutions at bare bones so as to have a bargaining
chip in the continuing debate over riders to the appropriations
"They will starve these
agencies and force them to the table," says Gawell. "(The
Republicans) are saying if you don't buy the riders that are going
to rewrite the laws, we will slowly destroy these agencies. It's a
is that we have been abandoned," says Alan Belt, BLM district
manager in Montrose, Colo. "There is going to be a discernable
difference in the service we can provide."
Abel, HCN staff