Andy Kerr

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

A New Mission and name for the Bureau of Land Management

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 82-85.

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The Bureau of Land Management doesn't get much respect.

BLM wasn't nicknamed the Bureau of Large Mistakes, Bureau of Livestock and Mining, Bureau of Lumbering and Mining, or Bureau of Land Mismanagement without justification.

Born in 1947, out of a merger of the General Land Office and the Grazing Service, the BLM still shows its parentage. Knowingly or unknowingly BLM officials have often served as a handmaiden to exploiter 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, and after the establishment of national forests, wildlife refuges, national parks, and military reservations. Since 1976, BLM has been charged with being the steward of the lands no one wanted, but it hasn't done the job that must be done.

BLM's stewardship failings can be attributed to a lack of money, vision, purpose, and leadership. Concerning the money, even though it has about four times as much 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 to achieve without it. 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 lagging behind the words, but that is not unusual in any government agency.

In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, which ended the policy of giving away public lands. The federal public lands (other than those already reserved for parks, wildlife, forests, the military and so forth) were to be retained and managed in the best interests of the American people. However, congressional direction for BLM lands allows for, or requires, greater levels of exploitation than are allowed for other federal lands.

While somewhat upgrading 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 BLM lands do not. It is because the lands are not part of a formal protective system.

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

It is time for BLM to have its own land protection system: the national desert and grassland system. Congress should place most BLM lands into a system of national deserts and grasslands similar to its system of 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 successor to 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, mission, and name. BLM has a second-rate name among the federal land-managing agencies. The others have employees in service to the nation, while BLM has bureaucrats.

Congress should write a new legislative charter for BLM lands so they have a comparable conservation mandate to other federal lands. It should also give BLM a new name: the U.S. Desert and Grassland Service (USDGS). Both morale and professional standards within the agency would improve and would result in better land stewardship.

The new USDGS should be structured like the Forest Service, with a National Desert and Grassland System branch dedicated to managing these unique public lands, and a scientific research branch dedicated to the understanding and recovery of desert and grassland ecosystems everywhere. It also needs a third branch, similar to the Forest Service's State and Private Forestry branch, to reach out to nonfederal desert and grassland owners and help them with the conservation and restoration of deserts and grasslands.

Those BLM lands that don't qualify as national deserts or grasslands should be transferred to other federal land management agencies. BLM's remaining Oregon coastal lands are best made part of the national wildlife refuge system. The same goes for BLM's vast holdings in Alaska. Congress should transfer BLM's forest lands in western Oregon to the Forest Service.