Babbitt is trying to nationalize the BLM

  • Bruce Babbitt speaking in Lake Tahoe, Nevada

    Rick Keister
  • Bruce Babbitt, right, and acting BLM director Mike Dombeck

    Rick Keister

Lake Tahoe, Nevada - Fifteen months after taking over at Interior, and a few months after suffering demoralizing defeats in the U.S. Senate and among his environmental supporters, a confident, energetic Bruce Babbitt came to Lake Tahoe to put his stamp on the Bureau of Land Management.

The occasion was the first-ever BLM Summit: a gathering of 337 Washington heads, state directors and district and area managers joined by 64 invited guests and two members of the press. The purpose of the summit, never explicitly stated by the organizers, was to create a national organization out of what is now 11 state outfits.

The effort to merge these 11 organizations was begun by former BLM director Jim Baca. But Baca was jettisoned on Feb. 3, perhaps because of "style" or because Babbitt needed to throw a sacrifice to the Western governors during his darkest hours, or because Baca insisted on running the BLM instead of deferring to Babbitt and his assistant, Tom Collins.

Judging by the April 25 to April 28 summit, which Baca conceived, his work continues, although with different rhetoric and style.

Babbitt, like Baca, wants to turn the $1 billion per year agency into a single outfit following a national program rather than a series of mining, grazing and oil and gas programs dictated by Western industries, Western governors and the individual congressional delegations.

To nationalize the BLM, Babbitt must confront its key players: state directors who run their outfits as kingdoms, accountable in only the broadest terms to national direction.

Babbitt acknowledged the power of the state directors: "I'd like to change that, but not by drawing administrative powers back to Washington, D.C., and not by terrorizing the state directors. I want to do it by sending outward a shared vision and by delegating responsibility" to line managers and staff on the ground.

The secretary said that at a press conference following his 7 a.m. speech to the 400 summit attendees on Wednesday, April 27, the third day of the conference. During the speech itself, he had jabbed at two state directors who, Babbitt felt, had exceeded their authority. But the bulk of Babbitt's talk was confined to describing his general approach to the West's problems, and how the BLM and other federal agencies can help solve those problems.

Babbitt didn't arrive at Lake Tahoe a moment too soon. The summit, which cost $243,300 for room, board and speakers' fees, had started off with a bang on Monday afternoon, with talks by Charles Jordan, director of Oregon's Parks and Recreation Department, University of Colorado historian Patricia Nelson Limerick and University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson.

Wilkinson, especially, had drawn blood by reminding the BLMers that they were about to lose 3 million acres of land in California's Mojave desert to the National Park Service because they and their agency had not protected the land. He then warned the BLM that it faced the same fate on the Colorado Plateau, where the agency's failure to protect almost 80 million acres means that it could eventually also lose that land.

But after the strong opening talks, the summit began to fade. Both Interior Assistant Secretary Bob Armstrong and acting BLM director Mike Dombeck are well liked by rank and file managers. Armstrong, who each day appeared in a less formal outfit, until one expected him to appear naked, is the original good old boy politician from Texas. He told a series of increasingly funny jokes, and he managed to talk one-on-one to almost every staff member and visitor in attendance. He is the "humanistic" member of Interior's top political appointees, one BLMer said, and was rewarded at the end of the meeting by a standing ovation.

And when Babbitt opened his Wednesday morning talk by saying he was pleased with acting director Dombeck and saw him staying in office a long time, the audience applauded enthusiastically.

But neither Armstrong nor Dombeck could articulate a vision. So the summit lay fallow Tuesday.

Babbitt brought it to life Wednesday by marching the audience through three of the issues he has grappled with over the last year: the Everglades, range reform and Northwest forests. Rather than put a happy face on those events, Babbitt acknowleged the battering he had taken and used it to identify with the on-the-ground managers:

"None of your good deeds will go unpunished. You will be vilified from every corner. When flailing you bloody, no one will talk to your kids in the classroom."

Babbitt had given his enemies and then his friends in the West ample opportunities to flail him bloody. Instead of delegating to his staff, and then coming in when a situation needed a touch from the top, over the last year Babbitt appeared intent on singlehandedly solving every problem in the nation. He was on a plane non-stop, jetting from the Everglades in the Southeast to the forests of the Northwest, with stops in between to talk to ranchers and land developers.

Perhaps the most quixotic of his efforts took place in Albuquerque, where, apparently on the spur of the moment, he interceded in a fight over Petroglyph National Monument. When he fell on rocks in the Petroglyphs and cut his head, the Indians said he was being punished by the spirits for considering a road through a sacred place. But out of that chaotic, painful year he has now forged a new vision and strategy for the West.

Babbitt took office in January 1993 with optimism that exceeded even that of his fellow environmentalists. He came in assuming that the West had changed character during the Reagan-Bush years, and that it wanted to reform grazing, mining, logging and water development.

But when he began to implement grazing reform, he ran into fierce opposition, vilified first by ranchers and Western senators, and then, when he began to tack to and fro, by environmentalists and congressmen like George Miller, D-Calif., and Mike Synar, D-Okla. Babbitt had already been defeated in the West by the Western governors and in the Senate by the Western senators when he fired Baca in early February, and earned himself a beating from most major environmental groups.

After his defeat in the Senate, and his decision to come to Colorado to negotiate grazing reform, he told Frank Clifford of the Los Angeles Times that he'd been wrong in his optimistic vision of a New West. There were no armies of reformers waiting at the grass roots in New Mexico and Colorado and Utah and Wyoming to push through major legislative changes. But he didn't tell the LA Times what view of the West had replaced his optimistic one.

He did that in Lake Tahoe on April 27. There is still a New West, he said, but in addition to having many additional environmentally minded residents, it is also an increasingly crowded, contentious place where people are elbowing one another over each acre of land.

"In the West that we live in, the empty spaces are filling up. Empty space used to buffer conflict," and allow Westerners to create parks and wilderness areas without interfering with other uses.

But now, he said, "Any management decision runs smack into existing uses. It means complexity and conflict. And it means that any "reform and change will be a hard-won process. This forces us to take a longer and more complex view."

The creation of a strategy to deal with the congested, contentious West is complicated by the U.S. Senate. On April 20, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee called Babbitt on the carpet for four hours to extract an unconditional surrender from him on grazing, mining, logging and water issues. Senators Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., Larry Craig, R-Idaho, Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., questioned him for hours. So many hours, in fact, that chairman Bennett Johnston, D-La., handed the gavel over to the Western senators and he, and the press, left for lunch.

The result was a standoff, indicating that Babbitt may have put the grazing reform issue behind him, and that his commute to Colorado eight times has defused the "war on the West" rhetoric that had been the Western senators' major staple. Sen. Domenici, for example, gave a relatively mild opening statement at the hearing, and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, praised his efforts on range reform.

Overall, the Western senators failed to dent Babbitt. So well did Babbitt do, in his staff's judgment, that they are sending copies of the four-hour hearing to Interior's agency offices and to anyone else who asks. Even a draw would be welcome at Interior, which has been badly bloodied in the past in the U.S. Senate.

Babbitt can stand up to the Western senators because he believes he has a West-wide strategy that goes around the Congress. He calls it Club Fed.

"We need to reorganize ourselves in the federal establishment. Jurisdictional boundaries - the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management - are a lot less important. We need to come together at the federal level and recognize our responsibility to the president and to the lands."

In Babbitt's Club Fed, agencies work together. Babbitt is setting the example. "I threw away my speech trashing the Army Corps of Engineers. Full of contrition, more or less, I went over to the Corps' to ask for help. "And they've joined in and become one of the lead innovators." Babbitt also said he is the first secretary of Interior who doesn't harbor an ambition to snatch the Forest Service back into Interior.

That is because Babbitt has a larger ambition. For example, "On grazing, we have a good, tight relationship with the Forest Service. And we've invited in the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been scarce in the West." He said he is also trying to transform Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service from its present pariah status among other federal agencies. Because the Fish and Wildlife Service was a perpetual outsider under Reagan-Bush, Babbitt said, it evolved the following attitude:

"You guys (the other agencies) go and do all this stuff, and then we'll look at it and tell you it's unacceptable." Now, Babbitt said, he wants to bring the agency into natural resource issues early on, as a cooperator.

At his press conference, Babbitt told the reporters, "The most under-reported story is how the Forest Service and Interior came together to make the Northwest forest plan. Compare it to the 1980s, when the Forest Service, the BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service were standing in separate corners in Judge Dwyer's courtroom blaming each other for gridlock. Now, the federal boundaries have literally been erased in Washington, Oregon and northern California."

The effectiveness of the cooperation will be tested, he said, in mid-May, when "Judge Dwyer will make a momentous decision" on the old growth plan.

In Florida, where the goal is to return adequate and clean water to Everglades National Park, Babbitt said, "When sugar companies blocked us in the Congress, we went to the state legislature in Tallahassee and last week we got a law there.

"We're working across the federal establishment, and working down to the community level. We can't get 100 percent, but the direction is important."

While the goal on issues - starting with grazing - is consensus, it is not a cure all. "If consensus doesn't work, so be it. It will be our job to make a decision. Consensus isn't a panacea. We're not going to have Paris Peace Accords in a (grazing) war that has been going on since 1906."

Babbitt's Club Fed approach has not been implemented everywhere. If the biggest successful example of agency cooperation is the old-growth forest issue, the Northwest is also the scene of its biggest failure, where the agencies have failed to come together on salmon recovery.

The point of Club Fed is to make ecosystem management possible on a landscape scale. In the Northwest, that requires the two major land management agencies - the BLM and Forest Service - to cooperate with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the three states, and the communities.

In the Everglades, it requires the agency that channelized rivers leading into the Everglades to restore those rivers, while the Environmental Protection Agency cleans up the water flowing into the park off the sugar cane farms.

And in grazing reform, it calls for the Forest Service and BLM to work with ranchers and environmentalists to restore riparian areas and weed- and brush-covered former grasslands.

The BLM Summit was set in the Tahoe Basin, an area crying out for ecosystem management. According to BLM firecrews, who ran the shuttles between the summit's two hotels, about 25 percent of the trees in the basin are dead or dying. Residents of homes and condominiums in the basin don't like the smoke that controlled burning creates. So the basin has been without even small fires to clear out deadfall for a decade. With Smokey Bear, rather than ecosystem management, in charge of the basin, the potential for a basin-wide conflagration is building.

In addition to providing an overview of agency cooperation and ecosystem management, Babbitt focused on the BLM. "Mike Dombeck is the acting director. And the more Mike acts, the more I like him and think he's going to be with us for a long time."

Babbitt also spoke to his audience about the power of the state BLM directors. "My gift to Oregon was getting Dean Bibles out." Bibles, a powerful Oregon state director, had pushed hard under Bush to clearcut the BLM's 2 million acres of old-growth forest, thereby playing a key role in the Northwest forest train wreck Babbitt is trying to prybar loose. But Bibles had formerly been state director in Arizona, where he had worked closely with then-Gov. Babbitt on a series of land trades that made hash out of public process and, some say, gave away valuable BLM land close to Phoenix for less valuable distant land (HCN, 6/18/89).

Perhaps because of that earlier relationship with Babbitt, his partner in those land deals, Bibles has made two runs at the BLM directorship, losing out first to Baca and now to Dombeck. He may have failed because, in the past, Babbitt was just another Western governor taking advantage of the BLM's pattycake relationship with the states. Now Babbitt is secretary of Interior, responsible for imposing a national perspective on the West's public lands.

For whatever reason, Bibles recently left the Oregon state directorship to head a land-exchange office with Interior - but not the BLM - in Washington. He was not invited to the summit.

After his jab at Bibles, Babbitt said of the 15-year state director of California's BLM land: "Ed Hastey is the viceroy of California. He occasionally deigns to tell me what he's doing. I saw him in Washington, D.C., recently. "What are you doing here?" I asked.

"'Oh, I'm opposing the California Desert Bill.' "

Applause came from the audience, which resents the 3 million-acre loss to the National Park Service. But Babbitt has supposedly been ordered by the White House to support the bill, which is important to the reelection campaign of Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. So he wasn't pleased to find Hastey lobbying against the bill.

Hastey said later, also in a half-joking way, that he had spent the winter in Alaska, where Babbitt had sent him on special assignment to keep him from lobbying on the Mojave Desert bill.

The tug of war with Bibles and Hastey is symbolic of the BLM's situation across the nation. For example, wander from BLM district lands run by the Grand Junction, Colo., office a few feet across the state line into the BLM lands run by the Moab, Utah, office, and you are in a different administrative world.

The Colorado BLM builds trails and tries to create a corridor of public land along the Colorado River. The Moab BLM fights environmentalists at Comb Wash when they try to get cows out of a rich archaeological and riparian area (HCN, 1/24/94).

In Colorado, state director Bob Moore is more or less in step with Colorado's environmental values. In Utah, state director James Parker, who is retiring, is in step with the anti-environmental values of Utah's state government and congressional delegation.

The Forest Service, National Park Service and other federal agencies try to soften the states' influence by having regions and regional directors that straddle all or parts of several states. It's no sure defense, as John Mumma, former regional director of the Forest Service, and Lorraine Mintzmyer, former regional director of the Park Service, discovered. Several Western senators ganged up on their Yellowstone Vision Document, and on them (HCN, 10/7/91). But the regional structure helps.

The BLM, however, was designed to be strongly responsive to state needs. Reorganization into regions is impossible at present because it would require congressional approach. A strong command-and-control strategy centered in Washington, D.C., would not require the Congress, but Babbitt rejects that approach.

Instead, the emphasis is on turning the BLM from current top-down control - where the "top" is the state director - into an agency where power lies with the district (roughly comparable to a national forest) and area (roughly comparable to a Forest Service ranger district) staffs, out in the field, operating according to a shared national vision of ecosystem management. Hence, Babbitt's swats at Bibles and Hastey and the extraordinary attention paid by top Interior and BLM staff to the district and area managers, throughout this first-ever summit.

Babbitt, Assistant Secretary Armstrong, and director Dombeck are also favored by circumstance: Seven of the 12 state directors have been moved, retired or announced they will retire. Bibles has been replaced by Elaine Zielinski, the first woman state director. Other promotions have not yet been made.

The BLM will be hard put to find new directors capable of helping to change the BLM's direction. For the most part, the BLM staff just below the present directors come from the same school as the retirees. The new breed of BLMer is generally several levels below the associate director level, and not yet ready to be jumped into a state director's office. So one test for Babbitt and company will be their ability to find competent replacements for present directors. That may mean going outside the agency.

But their task is made easier by the newly emerging culture of the BLM, thanks in part to the presence of a growing number of women and minorities. One woman at the meeting said, "The bathroom is crowded during breaks. We look at each other and ask: "Is this really the BLM?" "

Even those at the summit who didn't go into the women's bathroom could ask: Is this really the BLM? An outsider attending past BLM meetings sometimes felt like the civilian at a police convention. The federal officials were polite, but blank, impassive, guarded. Unless the visitor was a rancher, it was very definitely "them" and "us."

BLM managers with those traditional attitudes were at the summit. But a much more open, much less guarded tone was set by the new people, some of whom have been with the agency for a decade, and by some veterans. A surprising number wore buttons throughout the summit warning against the us-them attitude.

The same woman who spoke of the crush in the bathroom said, "The women and minorities have made a difference. But we couldn't have done anything without the young white males, many of whom also came in with a more open attitude."

One speaker, Utah State University forestry professor Jim Kennedy, said the new BLMers bring cat loyalty to the organization - a loyalty to issues and to their personal lives - as opposed to the older employees' dog-like loyalty to the organization. But Kennedy said that it would be a mistake to give up on older employees. Some of them, he said, harbor enormous personal pain because of awareness of the damage they've done to the land and often to themselves by blindly serving the BLM. As the atmosphere at the agency changes, Kennedy said, their experience and emerging self-knowledge may prove valuable.

The BLMers apparently went home happy despite meeting days that began at dawn and went until long past dinner. (The management at Tahoe's Hyatt Regency complained that the hotel's casino was dead during the summit.) They gave standing ovations to Babbitt and, at the meeting's close, to Armstrong. And they know they attended a historic event. In the future, the summit will be pointed to either as a place where the BLM changed, or where the BLM promised change, but failed.

The immediate responsibility lies with Babbitt and his team. They face tough decisions on the Owyhee bombing range, favored by Gov. Cecil Andrus, D-Idaho, and on a gas pipeline through Wyoming's historic South Pass, favored by Gov. Mike Sullivan, the Democratic candidate for Wallop's Senate seat.

Even more important will be their reaction when a district or area manager makes an on-the-ground decision that angers a Western senator, or the state director. Former director Baca micro-managed the agency, interceding to protect any ground-level employee who had angered his or her BLM superior. But Dombeck told the summit that he would not try to directly manage 11,000 employees and 270 million acres. Instead, he said, he would hold state directors responsible if ecosystem management is not carried out.

Assistant Secretary Armstrong, in a conversation, said the inefficiency of the BLM under Reagan and Bush gives the current BLM management running room. In the last year, he said, the BLM has issued more oil and gas leases than in a year under Bush. The key, according to Armstrong, was to discourage leasing in environmentally sensitive areas, but make leasing in already-developed areas more efficient.

While Babbitt supplied the vision and BLM line managers the spirit at the summit, the details are still lacking. The major questions among BLM employees at the meeting centered on reorganization: How was the agency to change its budgeting and hierarchy to strengthen the ground and encourage ecosystem management? The silence from Armstrong and Dombeck - even in response to direct questions from the floor one evening - was deafening.

The new approach is also hampered by the lack of vision and consensus across the West. Babbitt often seems to be the only Westerner in high position to think and speak broadly about the region. The West's senators and governors seem blind to the future and able only to see the past. And while Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas is an immense improvement over his predecessor, Thomas' boss, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, shows no interest in the West's public lands. And that makes the Forest Service less able to change.

Although there are obstacles to transforming the BLM, the agency has impressive strengths, and showed courage in staging its summit. In addition to a growing internal diversity, the BLM invited 64 guests - from Johanna Wald of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who specializes in suing the agency, to People for the West! - to the Summit. The BLM also tried to attract the press, but succeeded only for the few hours Babbitt was on hand.

By comparison, the Forest Service kept its two 1980s summits, nicknamed Vatican I and Vatican II, tightly sealed against visitors and press. A coming leadership meeting of Chief Thomas, the deputy chiefs, the regional foresters and the forest supervisors will also be closed.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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