Born in 1946 out of a merger between the federal General Land Office (est. 1812) and the U.S. Grazing Service (est. 1934), the present-day Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reflects its parentage by continuing to serve as partner or handmaiden to exploiter interests. For most of its history the BLM has been a mere custodian of the federal public lands left over from the great historic giveaways to homesteaders, railroads, loggers, ranchers, and miners, and after the creation of the national forests, wildlife refuges, parks, and military reservations. However, these remaining public lands are valuable for wildlife habitat, watershed protection, carbon sequestration, and recreation and should no longer be left in the domain of the extractive industries.
The BLM has jurisdiction over 264 million surface acres of federal public land in thirty-three states, which is approximately 11 percent of the total surface acreage of these United States. The majority of BLM holdings are in the eleven western states and Alaska. The BLM also manages nearly 700 million acres of federal subsurface mineral estate.
The BLM doesn’t get much respect. Unfortunately, the agency’s dismal reputation is not without cause. The agency has misplaced priorities, which results in mismanagement of public resources. Critics have nicknamed it the Bureau of Large Mistakes, the Bureau of Livestock and Mining, and the Bureau of Lumbering and Mining—with justification.
The BLM’s stewardship failings can be attributed to a general lack of funding, vision, purpose, and leadership. The BLM manages more land with less money than any other federal land management agency. This makes it difficult for the agency to inventory, monitor, conserve, and restore public lands (though the money seems to always be there to lease oil, gas and coal). Money isn’t everything, but it is something. Vision, purpose, and leadership have been impossible to develop and sustain under episodic administrations that appoint Interior Department officials who are generally hostile to the public interest and even to the concept of public lands.
The BLM’s stewardship record has slowly improved since the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) was enacted in 1976—albeit in fits and starts, and with some backsliding. More progress was made during the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations than during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. The BLM backslid dramatically during the George W. Bush administration to the bad old days of serving as a handmaiden to timber and grazing interests, energy developers, and off-road vehicle users.
Unfortunately, even with the FLPMA in place, the BLM continues to manage its lands primarily for resource extraction. Perhaps due to the aridity of most BLM lands, some find them less interesting and/or aesthetically pleasing than greener lands and thus less worthy of conservation and protection. Congress has subsequently directed and allowed for greater levels of exploitation on BLM holdings than on other public lands.
It’s time for Congress to upgrade the status of the agency by giving it a new vision, mission, and name. The BLM has a second-rate name among the federal land management agencies. The others employ personnel in service to the nation, while the BLM has bureaucrats. Congress should create a new agency: the U.S. Desert and Grassland Service (USDGS). Both morale and professional standards within the agency would improve, resulting in better land stewardship.
As the USDGS would specialize in the conservation, restoration, and management of deserts and grasslands, many public lands and resources currently under the jurisdiction of the BLM—including forests, tundra, coasts, and minerals—would be transferred to other, more suitable federal agencies. Specifically, here’s what should happen to lands currently under BLM jurisdiction:
· Approximately 2.6 million acres of mostly forested lands in western Oregon should be transferred to the National Forest System and managed by the Forest Service.
· Other generally forested BLM lands in eastern Oregon, California, Montana, and other states should be transferred to the National Forest System.
· All of the BLM’s approximately 85 million acres in Alaska should be transferred to the National Park System, the National Wildlife Refuge System, or the National Forest System, as appropriate.
· Most coastal areas managed by the BLM should be transferred to the National Wildlife Refuge System.
And here’s what should happen to BLM management of subsurface minerals:
· BLM management of subsurface minerals on National Forest System, National Park System, and National Wildlife Refuge System lands should be transferred to those respective land management agencies. The Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service already have jurisdiction over “common” minerals such as sand and gravel on these lands. Combining surface and subsurface ownership within these agencies would improve administration and management of natural resources.
· BLM management of subsurface minerals on Indian Trust Lands should be transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
· BLM management of subsurface minerals on nonfederal lands should be transferred to an expanded Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which should be renamed the Mining Reclamation and Enforcement Service.
The new DGS should be structured like the Forest Service, with a National Desert and Grassland System branch dedicated to managing these unique landscapes, and a second scientific research branch dedicated to understanding the function and recovery of desert and grassland ecosystems everywhere. A third branch similar to the Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry branch should be created to reach out to nonfederal desert and grassland owners and assist them with conservation and restoration of deserts and grasslands.
Perhaps someday the DGS’s nickname will be Damn Great Stewards.
For a good history of the BLM, I commend to you James Skillen’s The Nation’s Largest Landlord: The Bureau of Land Management in the American West (2009).
I am deeply indebted to Mark Salvo, now Vice President for Landscape Conservation of Defenders of Wildlife, but then Director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign (www.sagebrushsea.org) and Counselor to the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (www.publiclandsranching.org, www.permitbuyout.net), who was co-author with me of a 2009 Larch Occasional Paper entitled Establishing a System of and a Service for U.S. Deserts and Grasslands.