The BLM: New faces and new attitudes

  • Elaine Zielinski, in the Oregon/Washington office

  • Maitland Sharpe, assistant director, Resource Assessment and Plannin

    arry Marshall
  • Gil Lucero, in the New Mexico office


A new generation has ascended to top leadership posts at the Bureau of Land Management.

In the last eight months, acting BLM Director Mike Dombeck has filled 17 key positions, appointing three assistant directors, eight state directors and six associate state directors. Six appointees are women, two are minorities, and two have never before worked in the Interior Department. Several of the appointees leapfrogged over senior employees to reach their new posts.

Bureau staffers say the appointments - all but three of which have passed final procedural hurdles - represent more than a change of faces. They say the turnover signifies a change in bureau philosophy.

"To paraphrase (Energy Secretary) Hazel O'Leary, these new state directors are not your father's BLM. It's not the Bureau of Livestock and Mining any more," says Johanna Wald, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Steve Richardson, BLM assistant director for external affairs, says the new leaders were chosen to manage ecosystems rather than make isolated decisions about activities such as mining and grazing. Past directors, he says, often made such decisions without an overall concern for the environment. The recent round of appointments occurred as many long-entrenched state directors took advantage of retirement packages offered by the Clinton administration.

Some environmentalists say the change is dramatic.

"It used to be you had to be a head range person with the agency to get a stab at a state director position," says Cathy Carlson, legislative representative for the National Wildlife Federation. "You had to have strong ties to the livestock industry."

An especially pleasant surprise, Carlson says, is the appointment of Maitland Sharpe as assistant director for resource assessment and planning. Sharpe has been with the Izaak Walton League of America for 22 years, serving as the group's executive director for the last two years. Sharpe will be one of five assistant directors at the BLM.

Three of the eight new state directors are women; only one other woman has ever served as a state director. In Idaho and Nevada, women will fill the top two leadership slots.

Carlson says the newly appointed women are particularly grounded in conservation. New Idaho State Director Martha Hahn, current associate state director in Colorado, spent three years working for the Grand Canyon Trust in between intervals at the BLM. New Nevada State Director Ann Morgan came from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, where she managed its aquatic lands.

"I was attracted to this particular administration and agency because I think their agenda is the right one," says Morgan. "I'm interested in taking a holistic look at resources and in ecosystem management."

The appointees also have strong interpersonal skills, which former BLM leaders often lacked, says Carlson. "The agency has made a real effort to move people with clear dynamism instead of moving up people who have just survived in their jobs for 30 years." In particular, she points to Alan Pierson, who will jump from Rawlins District Manager, Wyo., to state director.

As part of the Clinton administration's attempt to reinvent government, Richardson says, the BLM will reduce middle-level management, consolidate and quicken the decision-making process, and increase accountability throughout the agency. By 1999 the BLM plans to employ 10 percent fewer workers than in 1992. BLM offices will lose 25 percent of their employees in Washington, D.C., Richardson says, while field offices around the country will gain workers. State offices will enjoy freedom to set their own agendas, and fewer national administrators will peer over the shoulders of state directors, he says. Some critics of the BLM warn that such freedom is a problem in the agency: State offices are run as the private fiefdoms of state directors in the pocket of the West's extractive industries (HCN, 5/16/94). But Richardson says the broad goal of ecosystem management will help unify agency activities.

Attorney Wald agrees the agency needs streamlining. "But if all it's going to do is produce more bad decisions faster, I don't want it," she says. "If the BLM is interested in decisions that are going to be better for the resources and better for the people who care about them, that's progress."

Carlson of the National Wildlife Federation says the future of the agency will be determined by the loyalties of the new state directors: "They're going to be there a long time. If history repeats itself, they'll weather political changes (the comings and goings of administrations) fairly well."

"I think the directors will be a real legacy the administration can point to," concludes Wald. "At least I hope so."

Chip Giller, HCN intern

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