Can BLM save the grass, and itself?

 

Backed into a corner by legislation that threatens its existence, the Bureau of Land Management has started punching back.

The agency began an aggressive Department of Interior campaign in late June, when acting BLM director Mike Dombeck delivered hard-hitting testimony against the Livestock Grazing Act before Senate and House subcommittees.

Dombeck, who has already made his mark on the agency by hiring a progressive set of new state BLM managers (HCN, 12/12/94), said the legislation sponsored by New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, would "set back public rangeland management 50 years." Senate bill 852 would make grazing the primary use of BLM lands and cut the public out of management decisions, he said.

Dombeck also defended the agency's new grazing regulations, Rangeland Reform '94 (HCN, 1/23/95), which resulted from two years of public discussion and collaboration. Those rules will take effect Aug. 21 unless Congress changes the law.

Following Dombeck's testimony, the agency mailed out a 38-page packet to editorial writers across the country detailing why the bills are a disaster. Articles and editorials appearing in July around the West, including pieces in the Salt Lake Tribune and Santa Fe Reporter, generally blasted the legislation as extremist. The Albuquerque Journal ran an op-ed piece by Dombeck defending the agency's new grazing rules.

The BLM's media blitz has not gone unnoticed by the livestock industry. Brad Little, an Idaho rancher and public-lands chairman for the American Sheep Industry, said, "The BLM has just gone banzai over this issue. But I can assure you, this bill isn't the bogeyman they're making it out to be."

Bob Sears, executive director of the Idaho Cattle Association, said the BLM's vocal opposition is so off-base that "I'm going to nominate Mike Dombeck for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction."

The agency's newfound aggressiveness prodded Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., to call for oversight hearings to see if the BLM has violated laws restricting agency lobbying. The struggle may also have jeopardized Dombeck's chances for Senate confirmation as head of the BLM.

"I'm glad to see them publishing information and getting the word out to the public," says Cathy Carlson, a lobbyist with the National Wildlife Federation. "It's the first time the agency has gotten energized about anything since the days of Jim Baca."

Despite BLM opposition, the livestock industry's perspective on grazing reform has prevailed so far. By an 11-9 margin, the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee passed the Livestock Grazing Act in mid-July. A tough fight is expected when it reaches the Senate floor.

Grazing reform isn't the only battleground. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, have introduced legislation that would turn over management of all BLM land, water and minerals to the states.

In response, the BLM released a report in late July which shows the various benefits the public reaps from public lands. Coordinated by Celia Boddington, who worked for congressman George Miller, D-Calif., before joining the BLM six months ago, the report says the new bills would cost Western states millions in federal dollars now received in the form of firefighting, mineral royalties and Payment in Lieu of Taxes.

In addition, the public lands would eventually wind up in private hands since the states don't have the capacity or the will to manage the public lands, the report says.

Johanna Wald, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the BLM's efforts to educate the public about these bills represent "a fight for its life against some unbelievably radical measures. We've never seen anything like this before. It's the context that has changed," she adds, "not the BLM."

Whether the BLM and environmentalists can derail the land-transfer bills or the grazing legislation remains to be seen. But the debate has awakened a sleepy agency - perhaps just in time to save its own neck.

Steve Stuebner contributed to this report.

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