Bureau of Land Management leaders have lost their way

A former state director argues narrow interests have dominated the agency’s direction.

 

I’ve spent over 40 years — spanning seven presidential administrations and across five Western states — serving the American public. Nearly all of that time was with the Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior. I believe that Americans value their public lands: They see them as part of being American, and they expect to see them passed intact to the next generation.

The BLM’s mission is not ideological and does not give preference to certain land-users. Its legal mandate calls for managing public lands for a variety of uses, treating energy generation and conservation equally. But now, the agency is losing sight of that mission. I worry that the nation is on a path that will deeply embed private interests into public lands.

A coal train travels north of Douglas, Wyoming, past a Chesapeake Energy drilling site on BLM land. The BLM has made oil and gas lease sales on more than 200 thousand acres of public land in Wyoming, Nevada, Montana and Colorado despite the oil market glut.

Jeopardizing millions of acres of federal lands and skewing land-use plans to maximize certain uses — with little interest in, acknowledgement of, meaningful public participation — goes decidedly against the BLM’s mission.

It’s disappointing to see today’s leadership devaluing iconic landscapes, diminishing public participation, and catering to the financial ambitions of narrow, favored interests.

Like most of my colleagues, I felt a profound responsibility to engage in public dialogue and involve communities. This is how we ensured that we were making the best-possible, best-informed decisions on behalf of present and future generations. It’s disappointing to see today’s leadership devaluing iconic landscapes, diminishing public participation, and catering to the financial ambitions of narrow, favored interests.

Since he took office, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s aggressive agenda has favored corporate interests. This push has continued despite the pandemic, ignoring public outcry against despoiling cherished Western landscapes.

The BLM has recently moved ahead with oil and gas lease sales on more than 200 thousand acres of public land in Wyoming, Nevada, Montana and Colorado despite the oil market glut. The pandemic has made it easier for the agency to sidestep the public comment process for projects in extremely sensitive areas, most recently in the Western Arctic and around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

No urgent need drives this cavalier attitude toward the public. Oil companies already hold about 10,000 unused drilling permits, yet they have swept up roughly 42 million more acres in nine planning areas across the American West and Alaska. If these lands are important to the nation's energy portfolio, a focused case should be made for them.

Why the push for leasing now, during a worldwide oil glut? Leasing now will lock in low financial returns for taxpayers and lower revenues for state and local governments. If the Interior Department really wanted to help oil-patch workers, it would promote the job of cleaning up abandoned wells.

Secretary Bernhardt panders to oil and gas interests by reducing royalties, handing out small business loans meant for local businesses, and leasing millions of acres for pennies on the dollar. His actions — carried out under the cover of a national emergency — do not serve taxpayers, state and local governments, or the public interest.  

Instead, the Interior Department should be assuring the American people that our country’s public lands will remain open to the public. Americans should know that their public lands will provide open space for families to safely recreate, support local economies and contribute to clean air and water. This should be just as true after quarantine.

Oil and gas companies cannot be the agency’s only economic concern. The BLM coordinates with hundreds of local communities across the West. In 2015, the agency identified 374,000 jobs and $88 billion in economic output tied to public lands. The benefits were spread across a broad range of land uses, including outdoor recreation, such as hunting, fishing and hiking. Local workforces depend on public lands in ways people might not expect. The land also provides field sites for scientists and heritage sites for Indigenous nations.

Over 97% of BLM employees live in communities adjacent to the lands they manage. Engaging broadly with elected officials and tribes, state agencies, county commissioners, interest groups, and user groups must continue to be their priority, just as it was when I was a state director.

Careful checking of facts on the ground, and dialogue with both neighbors and experts, helped us sense the public interest of a diverse society. The current administration seems to value short-term expediency over seeking and honestly representing community knowledge and opinions.

A century ago, a rock in Wyoming called Teapot Dome gave its name to a notorious scandal. Hoping to create a strategic underground oil reserve, then-Interior Secretary Albert Fall skirted public scrutiny and leased drilling rights to two oil companies that he had financial ties with. After years of congressional investigations and court battles, Fall was convicted of bribery. The current situation is not perfectly analogous to the 1920s, but it does provide us with a cautionary tale. Public awareness and involvement are good hedges against corruption.

Let’s all hope that the current BLM and Interior leadership listens to the people who are in touch with local communities and knowledgeable about public lands. Ultimately, let us hope the landscapes we love as Americans are handed to our children and grandchildren intact.After decades of service, I’m deeply disappointed by the direction the present BLM leadership has taken.

It saddens me to think about how dispirited many dedicated colleagues now feel. Many of them have scientific backgrounds and they know the present trajectory is not sustainable. Nearly all BLM employees are passionate in their desire to serve the public. We should respect them in doing so.

Jim Kenna retired as the California state director for the Bureau of Land Management in 2015 after 40 years of public service. He is currently based in Medford, Oregon, and serves on the board of the Conservation Lands Foundation. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...