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Know the West

Obama picks Nevadan Neil Kornze as next BLM head


A native Nevadan is expected to become the next overseer of much of the West’s public lands. Neil Kornze is President Obama’s nominee to head the Bureau of Land Management, which manages 245 million acres, mostly in Western states. Kornze joined the agency in 2011, and has been its principal deputy director since March. He replaced acting director Mike Pool, who stepped in after Bob Abbey retired in May 2012 (see our interview with Abbey).

At 34, Kornze would be one of the youngest agency heads ever, but he has a pretty impressive resumé. Raised in Elko, he's the son of a geologist who discovered major gold deposits near the town (now an open pit mine operated by mining giant Barrick). He graduated from Washington’s Whitman College with a degree in politics (seems he’s got some chops as a journalist too – he and another student shared a prize for Best Feature Story in the college newspaper). He earned a master’s in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, then went to work for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Neil Kornze has been nominated to head the Bureau of Land Management. Photo courtesy Department of Interior.

As a policy adviser with Reid, from 2003 to 2011, Kornze worked on public lands, water, renewable energy, wildlife and mining. Reid is notoriously friendly to the mining industry (see our story “Nevada’s Golden Child”), but Kornze doesn’t appear to have been a mining booster (industry interests complained that he “fought the mining industry’s opposition of the Pine Grove-Esmeralda Wilderness efforts”). He helped put together the 2009 public lands omnibus bill. The bill  designated 2 million acres of wilderness, codified the National Landscape Conservation System, and added 1,000 river-miles to the Wild and Scenic river system, among other things. He also helped reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools program, which provides funding to rural counties that formerly relied on income from timber sales, and the Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes program, which compensates states with a lot of federal land for loss of property tax revenue from that land.

At the BLM, as senior advisor, Kornze worked on renewable and conventional energy development, transmission siting, and conservation policy. He was instrumental in the Western Solar Plan, which established 17 solar energy zones on public land, and in approving nearly 50 utility-scale renewable energy projects.

He was also key in developing the BLM's rule for regulating hydraulic fracturing on public lands. Enviros felt the final version was watered down to appease industry, though. Under his watch, the BLM also withdrew public lands from mining claims to make them available for renewable energy development.

Neil Kornze (left) at site of proposed Northeast Nevada Wild Horse Eco-Sanctuary. Photo courtesy BLM.

Kornze’s nomination has been greeted with approval from enviro groups, and, predictably, dismay from conservatives and off-roaders. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell sang his praises in a press release:

“Neil has helped implement forward-looking reforms at the BLM to promote energy development in areas of minimal conflict, drive landscape-level planning efforts, and dramatically expand the agency’s use of technology to speed up the process for energy permitting.”

From the League of Conservation Voters:

“Neil Kornze will continue to provide the steady leadership we need at the Bureau of Land Management.  As a westerner, he knows first-hand the importance of careful stewardship of our public lands. He's the right choice for the job, and the Senate should act quickly on his nomination."

Trout Unlimited also approves:

“During his time on Capitol Hill and in recent years at the BLM, Neil has demonstrated a pragmatic, solutions-oriented approach to public lands challenges,” said Trout Unlimited President and CEO Chris Wood. “Neil has the perfect balance of a deep appreciation for the conservation value of public lands, and the role they play in providing goods and services that drive local economies….”

And a former classmate of Kornze's at Whitman, Cameron Scott, offered HCN this take:

I'd say he is an incredibly adept and dedicated individual able to meet the needs of various interest groups and play the political game while still remaining grounded. He is super charismatic. Very inquisitive. I'd share a meal with him anytime, and while sharing that meal we'd have a pretty awesome conversation.

Unlike other recent BLM directors, Kornze doesn’t have decades of natural resource experience. Bob Abbey had worked in various land management agencies for close to 30 years, as had his predecessor, Jim Caswell. Kornze’s boss at Interior, Sally Jewell, didn’t have long-standing public lands experience either when she was tapped for the job six months ago, but her first major conservation policy speech, delivered Nov. 3 at the National Press Club, drew a standing ovation. Kornze’s appointment, if confirmed by the Senate, bodes well for the BLM to continue the more balanced approach it’s been striving for, putting greater emphasis on conservation while continuing to allow reasonable oil and gas development.

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News.