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

by Joshua Zaffos

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.

When I became the state director in Nevada in 1997, one of the first individuals I reached out to was Dick Carver, a county commissioner in Nye County. He carried the U.S. Constitution in his front pocket every place he went, and had also become famous for being antifederal during the Sagebrush Rebellion, phase two. There was this picture of him sitting on a bulldozer, where he had just graded a road into a wilderness study area and threatened the federal government to do something about it.

By reaching out to Commissioner Carver, I could introduce myself to him on his turf. That initial meeting led to a long, positive working relationship, even though we maintained some strong differences of opinions. If you're going to have any success, you better have that relationship in place before you need to call upon it, because you're going to have a controversy somewhere along the line.

Most recently, I was the author of a concept paper called Treasured Landscapes; the concept was (that) the BLM was the steward of many outstanding areas that deserved some special management attention. That report was leaked (PDF), and it became a basis for concern among many Western rural areas because they thought that there was a conspiracy under the new president that we were going to do a "federal land grab" and put more areas "off-limits" to commodity production -- those are terms used by the public.

The most concerns came out of eastern Montana and, unfortunately, people get caught up in the rumors. So, I took it upon myself to accept an invitation from the county commissioners to attend a public meeting. When I got to Malta (population 1,997), there were over 2,000 people in the high school gymnasium. ...

HCN That's quite a showing in Malta.

BA It was democracy at its best. There were signs in the front yards of most of the residents, saying "No More (National) Monuments." There were street vendors selling food and souvenirs in the parking lot of the high school. The motel rooms were full, the restaurants were full, the bars were full. It felt like a localized stimulus project.

It was a great opportunity for me to explain the rationale behind the document and to try to provide assurance to the people. There was nothing in there that they should be fearful of. There is nothing under way to use the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments in eastern Montana. Anything that we might do in the future would be based upon the very public processes in place, or through discussions in Congress.

HCN How do you feel about the development of renewable energy projects on BLM lands?

BA We undertook renewable energy because we wanted to diversify this nation's energy portfolio. We tried to learn from our experience in the oil and gas program that we need to be smart from the start before allocating significant acreage to renewable energy projects because commercial-scale energy projects -- whether they're wind or solar -- require a lot of land and the footprint is pretty large.

I believe the completion of the programmatic (environmental impact statement) for solar energy lays a really good foundation for how energy should be managed on public lands.

HCN How is the agency preparing for climate change?

BA Climate change is real and could care less about administrative boundaries. The BLM now has been aggressively going out and collecting as much data as possible, compiling information that already exists, and sharing that with other agencies. The assessments get us a baseline so that we have a better idea of climate change and its true effects on the resources that we're managing.

We also have a renewed appreciation that there may be some future uses, (such as) carbon sequestration, where you capture carbon and deposit it in various geologic formations underground. I think (public lands are) going to be a very valuable asset when this nation gets more serious about climate change.

HCN After all these years, do you have a favorite spot on BLM lands?

BA Even though I love the desert, I'm kind of a water rat, and I enjoy whitewater rafting and canoeing. But it's not about me.

One of the things I take great pride in came home to me in talking with veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including wounded warriors. Many veterans are rediscovering -- and discovering for the first time -- public lands. It is an opportunity to pursue a favorite recreational activity, and an opportunity for solitude and to recollect their thoughts and help them heal. We need to continue to provide access to these lands.

I'm a proponent of multiple use, but (it) doesn't necessarily mean every use on every acre. We need to be smart. The future of how public lands are going to be managed is going to be based upon how they're being used today.

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