Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

It's Time to Replace the Bureau of Land Management

By Andy Kerr

Column #22 - Go to next column

Length: 747 words

Published: 22 May 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain

Pity the Bureau of Land Management.

It doesn't get much respect. It's wasn't nicknamed the Bureau of Large Mistakes without reason. Or the Bureau of Livestock and Mining (in western Oregon it's the Bureau of Lumbering and Mining).

Born in 1947, out of a merger of the General Land Office and the Grazing Service, the BLM still shows its parentage. It has often served as a handmaiden to exploitive interests.

For most of its history, BLM has been the mere custodian of the federal public lands left over from the great giveaways to homesteaders, railroads, loggers, miners and the like. Since 1976, BLM has been charged with being the steward of the lands no one wanted, but it hasn't done a good job.

BLM's failings can be attributed to a lack of money and a lack of vision, purpose and leadership. Concerning the money, even though it has about four times the land as the Forest Service, BLM has about one-quarter of the budget. While money isn't everything, it is something.

The vision, purpose and leadership are more difficult. BLM has been developing better leaders of late.

BLM's stewardship record is slowly improving, albeit in fits and starts, and with some backsliding. For example, BLM has officially renounced its bias toward timber in Western Oregon. The actions are still behind the words, but that is not unusual in any government agency. In eastern Oregon, BLM has undertaken a new scientifically based planning process that will likely lead in the direction of better land and resource stewardship.

In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, which ended the policy of giving away the public lands. The federal public lands (other than those already reserved parks, wildlife, forests, military, etc.) were to be retained and managed in the best interests of the American people.

While upgraded the status of the lands from giveaways to at least keepers, Congress didn't give BLM's lands the same status as other federal lands. The Forest Service has its National Forest System; the Park Service its National Park System and the Fish and Wildlife Service its National Wildlife Refuge System.

All of these designations show up on road maps and atlases, but not BLM lands. It's because they are just there, and not part of a formal management system.

Until recently one could drive across the West and be viewing BLM lands more often than not, and not know it. It's a good sign that BLM has started to put up some signs.

It's time for BLM to have its own land system: the National Grasslands System. Congress should place most BLM lands into a system of national grasslands similar to national forests. What! you say! There already is such a thing: the Forest Service manages several National Grasslands (including Oregon's Crooked River National Grasslands) as part of the National Forest System. True. These should be transferred to the BLM.

Along with upgrading the status of the lands, it is also time for Congress to upgrade the status of the agency and give it a new vision and mission. BLM even has a second rate name among the federal land managing agencies. The others are services have employees in service to the nation, while BLM has bureaucrats.

Congress should write a new charter for the BLM and give it a new name: the National Grasslands Service. Both morale and professional standards within the agency would improve and result in better land stewardship.

The new NGS should be structured as the Forest Service with a National Grasslands System branch dedicated to managing these unique public lands, and a scientific research branch dedicated to the understanding of grassland ecosystems everywhere. It also needs a third branch like the Forest Service's State and Private Forestry branch, to reach out to non-federal grassland owners and help them with the conservation and restoration of grasslands.

Those BLM lands that don't qualify as national grasslands should be transferred to other federal land management agencies. Congress recently transferred the last BLM-administered offshore islands into the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, so every one of over 1400 federal offshore rocks, reefs and islands are now under one jurisdiction.

BLM's remaining coastal lands are best to become of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The same goes for BLM's vast holdings in Alaska. Congress should transfer BLM's forestlands in western Oregon to the Forest Service.

Perhaps someday NGS could stand for Naturally Great Stewards.

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