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

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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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