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
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Type: Permanent, fulltime Reports to: Executive Director Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state and out-of-state required Compensation (beginning): $44,000 to 46,500/yr., DOE plus excellent benefits...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.