BLM looks for balance


"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."

-- Retired Bureau of Land Management chief Bob Abbey, who stepped down in May, speaking to HCN in a recent interview.

Judging by the way much BLM land is being used today, its future management will be largely focused on fossil fuel extraction. Although the agency has tried to restore a balance between resource development, conservation and recreation, a pro-development political environment has forced it to back off on some sweeping initiatives (see our story "Wild lands by any other name"). And recent revelations show that in many cases, it's still giving priority to oil and gas production. 

Last week, a career BLM natural resources specialist retired and sent one last missive to his colleagues strongly criticizing the agency. The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility posted a news release about the three-page memo from Stan Olmstead, who worked in the BLM's Vernal, Utah field office:

(Olmstead's) sobering message depicts cascading natural system failures due to unchecked oil and gas drilling and related cumulative damage to public lands and waters.

Stan Olmstead started his career in natural resource management inside public agencies 44 years ago, with stints in the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. For the past 20 years he has been a Natural Resource Specialist and an Environmental Scientist in BLM’s Vernal Field Office in eastern Utah, near the Colorado border. On September 28th, his final day of federal service, he sent a memo entitled “Last Formal Comment” to all BLM employees throughout Utah.

In this memo, he decried a singular “focus on commodities and economics as opposed to environmental health.” He elaborated by writing “At the Vernal Office little concern has been shown to care for sensitive species … We promote energy development without stop and continue to measure natural resources by dollar value…”

As examples, Olmstead pointed to the loss of the only mountain plover population in the state, to abandoned gas and oil wells that have sat unreclaimed for 15 years, and to grazing permit numbers that haven't been adjusted to reflect the loss of forage to oil and gas development.

Drilling for coalbed methane on BLM lands near Price, Utah. Courtesy BLM.

Greenwire also reported on Olmstead's departure (subscription required):

"Without serious fulfillment of the mission we continue to harm public land as it has been harmed so frequently in our historic past," Olmstead wrote. "Be honest about what is happening. It is easier to break something than to fix it, so let us stop breaking the land."

Olmstead's critique of the Utah's BLM relentless focus on energy development echoes a  New York Times story from this summer, describing the oftentimes-cozy relationship between Vernal officials and oil and gas companies (we first reported on this problematic relationship back in 2004):

In the nine years that Mr. (Bill) Stringer has been the top bureau official in Vernal, the field office has approved an average of 555 new oil and gas wells a year, nearly three times the number in the previous decade. Agency records show that his office, where employees often shuttle between business and government, rarely issues drilling-related fines for environmental or safety violations and has pushed to ease rules about well sites near sensitive wildlife habitats.

The agency in Utah also sided with business executives to kill a proposed agency study of the effect of thousands of oil and gas wells on area air quality.

…. Local officials who view drilling as an economic boon frequently turn to Mr. Stringer as an ally when they run into roadblocks from Washington.

These local agency actions reflect the higher-level push for drilling coming from Washington. As the New York Times notes:

In recent months, the Obama administration has approved several long-delayed drilling projects near Vernal, including one that has brought threats of lawsuits from environmentalists and unusual praise from the industry. In an election year, with jobs a crucial issue and increasing energy independence a campaign talking point, President Obama and top officials are playing down their efforts to rein in the industry, instead sounding themes similar to Mr. Stringer’s about approving more projects and expediting procedures.

“If you hear anybody on TV saying that somehow we’re somehow against drilling for oil, then you’ll know that they either don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re not telling you the truth,” Mr. Obama said in March, touring leased federal land in New Mexico. “We’re drilling all over the place.”

In the interview cited at the top of this post, Abbey told High Country News why he retired from the agency for the first time 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."

In some parts of the BLM, it doesn’t appear that much has really changed since 2005, despite some important reforms to oil and gas leasing (see our story "The BLM struggles to get ahead of oil and gas development in the West"), and some parcels that were removed from lease auctions (see our story "Obama's record on Western environmental issues").

Many of the agency's employees do care deeply about the natural resources in their charge, and do their best to steward the land responsibly. But as one soon-to-retire BLM employee said, "the bureaucracy of the federal government gets thicker every month. If you knew some of the ways I spend some of my time and your money you probably wouldn't believe it." Any other (most likely former) BLM employees out there who'd like to chime in about their view of agency priorities?

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor at High Country News.

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