Abbey's Road: Retired BLM chief gives one last look across the range

  • BLM Director Bob Abbey attends a public meeting in Malta, MT to discuss land management issues.

    Bureau of Land Management
  • BLM Director Bob Abbey visits a Northwest Forest Plan timber sale that included regeneration harvest and thinning near Salem, OR.

    Bureau of Land Management

Bob Abbey, director of the federal Bureau of Land Management, retired this May after a total of 28 years with the agency. It was his second -- and final -- retirement: He originally left in 2005 after eight years as the Nevada state director, returning in 2009 only after a special request from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Abbey accomplished a lot in Nevada, notably helping gain authorization for the 1998 Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, which allowed the BLM to sell parcels around Las Vegas and direct the funds to conservation. He also led the Great Basin Restoration Initiative, an interagency program to eradicate millions of acres of invasive cheatgrass. Abbey recently told High Country News why he stepped down in 2005: "One of the reasons was my frustration with how the BLM was being managed. The primary emphasis was to make as many acres as possible available for oil and gas leasing and production, and that overtook other important programs."

When Salazar asked Abbey to return as the national director, overseeing the agency and the 245 million acres it manages, he was a "reluctant candidate" at first. But he spent the next three years restoring balance among management priorities, including conventional and renewable energy development, recreation and traditional BLM land uses, such as grazing and mining. This spring, the director announced he was stepping down -- again. He and his wife, Linda, are ready for some quiet, at-home time back in his native Mississippi, Abbey says. "My wife thinks BLM stands for ‘Better Like Moving.' "

High Country News caught up with Abbey at The Nation Possessed conference on public lands in Boulder, Colo., this September.

High Country News Can you share an experience that epitomizes the changes in the BLM during your career?

Bob Abbey I came to work for BLM in 1980. After six years, I applied for an area manager job, which is one of the most important positions in the Bureau because it's the local-level decision maker. After applying, I was called in by the state director, who told me I needed a different career goal because I was not a range conservationist or a forester, and, therefore I probably was not qualified to be a manager for the BLM. That gave me added motivation. Over time, I served as a district manager, an associate state director, a state director and, ultimately, the (national) director. I'm glad to say that type of barrier that was in place in my early days is no longer there.

HCN How do you feel about the pace and scope of oil and gas development on BLM lands both during and after your time as director?

BA (When I retired in 2005,) the primary criteria for evaluation of a state director's performance was the number of applications for permits to drill that we had approved and the number of acres that we had leased. That was not why I came to work for the BLM. Coming back as the national director, I found that the oil and gas program was broken, and I testified to that fact in Congress -- much to the chagrin of some members of the panel. It was broken because many of the orders and regulations governing oil and gas on these public lands were over 20 years old. Almost 50 percent of proposed (drilling) decisions were protested, appealed or litigated. The Bureau had not done a very good job of looking at the appropriateness of leasing an area.

Through oil and gas leasing reform, we use interdisciplinary teams (with biologists and recreation planners in addition to oil and gas specialists), so the parcels we chose to offer for leasing were the most appropriate. And by "appropriate," I mean that the industry was interested in leasing the parcels, but, more importantly, "appropriate" from a standpoint of doing the least impact to other values cared for by the American public.

HCN Are these changes about reforming the culture of the agency?

BA During the two terms of President George W. Bush, the emphasis was oil and gas leasing and production. No doubt about that. So the employees adapted. Under President Obama and Secretary Salazar, (BLM employees) are meeting the expectations of today's administration. Does that mean that it takes some employees a little longer time to transition than others? Yeah, they're human beings. But one of the strengths of the BLM is its employees. They are some of the most dedicated public servants that you find anywhere.

HCN There are fewer boots on the ground than there used to be. Is there an opportunity to change this trend?

BA The BLM -- if not most of the land-management agencies -- has capacity issues. Do we have a sufficient number of personnel to meet the expectations that the public has? The quick answer is no.

Congress has historically funded the BLM for adequacy and not excellence. Having said that, there could be reductions across the board in the federal government. As director, I made it very clear that, to the degree possible, reductions in personnel would occur in Washington, D.C., our national centers, and our state offices before we ever touch our field offices because the job on the ground is being performed by the employees working out of our BLM field offices. It's very important that we don't add to the capacity challenges that they already have.

HCN What intense situations stick out in your mind and portray the challenges of public-lands management?

BA I think every day you have such an example, and I'm not being too facetious.

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