Budget impasse leaves BLM scrambling

 

From under a blanket of snow, the Miles City, Mont., Bureau of Land Management office should be preparing for spring. Ranchers need permits to send their sheep into pasture. Roads that have decayed over winter need repairs. Outfitters need permits for spring river trips, and mining companies want their environmental assessments completed.

But the BLM isn't ready; it's playing catch-up from the last furlough and anticipating the next.

"The uncertainty is overwhelming," says Miles City BLM's Marilyn Kraus.

Nearly 3,000 miles away, Congress isn't preparing for spring either. Lawmakers have been sent home until Feb. 25 to campaign for the fall election.

With budget talks at a standstill, some environmentalists are claiming a bittersweet victory: None of the riders tacked on to the Interior Appropriations Act by the Republican majority have become law. They include bills that would mandate timber cuts in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, narrow the scope of the Columbia River Basin Ecosystem Management Project and prevent it from using some scientific data, cut the Park Service budget for the Mojave National Preserve to $1 and transfer authority of the preserve to the BLM.

Not having a budget since October has taken a toll on land management agencies. "They feel correctly like they are pawns in the game," says Wilderness Society staffer Karl Gawell.

After newspapers printed photos of angry tourists standing outside the locked gates of national parks, Republicans and the Clinton administration were determined not to let that part of government shut down a third time. On Jan. 6 Congress guaranteed a full year of funding for visitors' services for the BLM and national parks, such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. It left funding for the rest of Interior's programs uncertain.

Congress picked the high-profile programs that received the most criticism for being closed during the furlough and funded them, says Interior Department spokeswoman Marybeth Thompson.

But the BLM does more than help tourists visit public land. Its field offices are wedded to the small communities adjacent to the 270 million acres it administers. Low-profile daily operations, such as grazing and recreation, are intricately woven into local economies.

* Spokesman for the Montana BLM office Greg Allbright says they are hesitant to issue grazing leases since the agency may not have the money to make sure the land is not overgrazed. "Can we start grazing if we can't stop it?" he asks.

* In Ely, Nev., District Manager Gene Kolkman says he now turns down ranchers' requests to do range improvement, work on riparian areas, or build fences because his office can't do the necessary environmental studies.

* Idaho State Director Martha Hahn says the agency may have to back out of restoration projects that are planned in partnership with private groups because she doesn't want to make contracts past March. She is especially nervous that the agency won't be prepared for the summer fire season.

* In Grand Junction, Colo., individuals wishing to contract with the BLM to catch wild horses must wait until the agency has a budget, says District Manager Mark Morris.

Morale is at rock bottom. "The feeling is even if we get a budget it will be less than we need to operate on," says Miles City's Kraus.

The BLM thought the anxiety would end Jan. 26. But a bipartisan leadership committee negotiated yet another continuing resolution which extended funding for the agency until March 15 - although at a lower level than its 1995 budget. Republicans Sen. Slade Gorton, Wash., and Rep. Ralph Regula, Ohio, proposed another Interior Appropriations Act in early February, but the administration rejected it and the two camps remain at an impasse. Some D.C. analysts say that there is a slight chance of an appropriation this year, but the agencies will most likely be strung along until the elections.

Some environmentalists say Republicans want to keep funding from continuing resolutions at bare bones so as to have a bargaining chip in the continuing debate over riders to the appropriations bill.

"They will starve these agencies and force them to the table," says Gawell. "(The Republicans) are saying if you don't buy the riders that are going to rewrite the laws, we will slowly destroy these agencies. It's a hostage game."

"The feeling is that we have been abandoned," says Alan Belt, BLM district manager in Montrose, Colo. "There is going to be a discernable difference in the service we can provide."

Heather Abel, HCN staff researcher/reporter

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