BLM seeks Congressional OK for new fees, private donations

Agency woes range from too many wild horses to not enough drilling inspectors.

 

 

The director of the Bureau of Land Management sat across a big oval table from members of the U.S. House of Representatives this week and made his case for more money. The agency needs increased funding, he said, to manage challenges as diverse as a drilling boom and an overabundance of wild horses across vast stretches of public lands.

But before BLM Director Neil Kornze even had a chance to pitch President Obama’s $1.2 billion budget proposal for his agency, the chairman of the panel, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-CA, said the request didn’t match the “very constrained funding environment” in Congress.

Kornze pressed for approval of proposals to expand BLM’s funds without getting more cash from Congress. He asked the panel to create a BLM foundation, so the agency can raise private funds, and to approve BLM’s plan to charge the oil and gas industry for inspections on federal land.

Currently, the BLM has 159 inspectors for 100,000 wells, but Kornze says it needs at least 220. “This is a major industrial activity on public lands and it needs oversight,” he said.

The administration’s proposal would raise an estimated $48 million in 2016, but cost companies only about $1,000 per well, which Kornze said isn’t much for companies that have invested at least $8 million to drill each well.

The BLM also wants to start charging an administration fee for grazing, which would help the agency clear its big grazing permit backlog more quickly.

Calvert, who chairs the House Committee on Appropriations subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, did not oppose the proposals outright but said they should be considered by the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees BLM, not the panel that funds the agency.

The highest-ranking Democrat on the panel articulated the problem with that logic. “How do we get the authorizing committee to do their job?” said Betty Louise McCollum, D-Minnesota. “Maybe they should stop doing leases then if we can’t do inspections,” she said, adding quickly that no one wants that outcome.

The biggest increase in the administration’s budget is the request for $60 million  a four-fold increase  for the agency’s sage grouse program.

Republicans on the panel seemed inclined to provide that money — if cuts are found elsewhere in the budget. As HCN has reported, the 11 states with grouse territory are working with the federal government to try to reduce risks to the bird, so that it doesn’t end up on the endangered species list. In part, the money would go to plant strips of fire-resistant vegetation and cut down juniper and piñon trees that have flourished over what had been native sagebrush and grass habitat. This will increase the birds’ territory and reduce the risk of wildfires, which burn millions of acres of rangeland each year.

 “If we go ahead and do everything  from this committee, the states, localities  and the sage grouse is still listed; that’s not going to bode well for future cooperation,” Calvert warned.

Kornze also asked for more money to reduce the herds of wild horses that trample sage-grouse habitat and otherwise imperil the rangelands, as HCN has reported. He said some 50,000 wild horses now roam BLM rangelands, about twice what the territory can handle. Some $10 million of the funding would go to develop better techniques for birth control vaccines or sterilization of the herds. 

Kornze suggested that capturing a horse and maintaining it throughout its life with federal funds is too expensive. “We spend $45,000 on that horse, and that’s a good college education,” Kornze said. The government already supports 50,000 in captivity.

McCollum pressed Kornze on what the agency is doing about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who as HCN has reported had a standoff with BLM officials about a year ago at his Nevada ranch. Bundy has yet to be charged for illegal grazing or his unpaid grazing fees. At least one of the hundreds of people gathered at his ranch aimed a rifle at federal agents; that person has not been charged either.

“Mr. Bundy and his band of armed thugs are dangerous. They have committed acts that are criminal by threatening federal employees. They should be held accountable. They should be prosecuted,” said McCollum.

Kornze failed to specify what the federal government is doing about Bundy. “It is absolutely essential that those who have broken laws are brought to justice,” he said.  “The grazing issues persist. This will be something that will continue to get my highest level of attention.”

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. Follow her @ShogrenE.   

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