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The beef against the BLM
Critics says the obscure federal agency has always been too cozy with ranchers
by Steven T. Taylor/© 1999 Cascadia Times
Unlike many of its federal, natural-resource cousins, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has escaped close scrutiny for years. Whereas the U.S. Forest Service often seems to find itself embroiled in controversial newspaper stories and TV news-magazine shows, and the National Park Service maintains a high profile before millions of summer tourists, the BLM trudges along, out of the spotlight like a gritty backstage worker.
While the agency isn't huge, it's not a skinny arm of government either. As a branch of the U.S. Department of Interior, it employs some 9,500 people, oversees 265 million acres of federal land, and receives an average annual budget from Congress of about $1 billion. Still, for an institution with so much responsibility and such significant congressional allocations, it is relatively unknown to a majority of the public.
And, according to many Capitol Hill insiders, academicians, environmental leaders, and most importantly, some current and former BLM employees, the agency's below-the-radar screen persona makes it susceptible to alleged corruption. Most of its problems stem from what one BLM employee calls "insidious collusion" with the industries it is charged to regulate: the livestock, minerals, oil and gas and timbers interests.
Former Director of the BLM Pat Shea, who last November was moved to another Interior Department position, tacitly acknowledged such alliances. While he was leading the agency, he said he tried to "move the BLM away from some of [its] more traditional relationships, like with the livestock industry and the oil, gas and mineral people."
Most observers say Shea failed to do that, and they are not confident his successor, Acting Director Tom Fry, will have much success either.
The industry to which the agency is most prone to an incestuous relationship, sources say, is ranching. Cattle get preferential treatment over the environment, they say. Consequently, much of the range on which cattle graze is severely damaged. In fact, riparian areas are "in the worst condition in history," according to one of the Department of Interior's own documents.
On sensitive land in Wyoming, for example, a rancher with a history of having his way with the local BLM "dumped his cattle" in a riparian area where they have grazed for a decade, says Craig Thompson, who teaches environmental science and engineering at Western Wyoming College, and has repeatedly challenged the agency. As a result, the cattle have "hammered" the grazing allotment in violation of federal environmental requirements, Thompson says. "It's a nightmare out there," he adds, "and the BLM has never held [the rancher] responsible for the damage."
Money and History
The rancher-BLM alliance is fed by two primary factors: money and history. "The number one problem is that the BLM is rewarded for losing money," says Randal O'Toole, economist for the Thoreau Institute. "And if you're a [BLM manager], you know that if you have a lot of cattle on your district you can get a bigger budget because Congress loves to fund cattle."
Historically, the BLM is deeply rooted in its cowboy past, and in a sense, owes its existence to the ranching industry. It was born in 1946 from the merging of two federal-agency parents, the Grazing Service and the General Land Office. "You have to go back in history to really appreciate the agency," says Bill Marlett, director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. "The cows were there before the agency existed. So it's not like the agency came here [to the West] and said, 'This is how we're going to do things, boys.' It was the other way around. The agency came out to the cow barons and said, 'Congress said we ought to do something. What do you think? We're here to serve.'"
But it's not just environmental activists who assess the agency's priorities and directions this way. Some BLM employees acknowledge that many among the agency's rank-and-file come from state agriculture schools that are dominated by governing philosophies that promote livestock grazing and heavy intervention in the manipulation of public land resources.
Many of these range students graduate with animal husbandry training and truly believe they should promote pipelines and fences and other on-the-ground amenities for public land ranchers. Their value systems, like their educational training, are founded on an intrinsic belief in livestock-on-the-land as preeminent status symbols.
All of this is often perpetuated when they leave college, are hired by the agency and deal with the real-world concerns of ranchers, with whom they interact much more frequently than they do environmentalists. After all, these government workers live in rural communities in which ranching is a major part of the culture.
Aim to Keep Ranchers Happy
Once placed in these small towns and rural settings, which tend to be politically conservative, this pro-ranching bias is often reinforced by community standards. And, even for those BLM staffers who do have the health of land at heart, it's hard to buck that.
"Many [BLM workers] want to maintain their rapport with the ranchers at all costs," says one BLM employee. "In general, the people who live in a lot of the small towns where the BLM is aren't environmentalists." (The employee asked not to be named because his "family has to live in this town.")
But, of course, it's more than just the educational upbringing and community pressure that promote ranching values above others. It's bare-fisted politics, too.
"I know a guy who is a real conscientious manager in Idaho," the BLM employee says. "He locked horns with some ranchers. So they just pulled him out of [the district where he worked]. That's from a weakness from [state leadership]. It sends a message that says don't screw with these ranchers. It happened last year. Now he's in a trumped-up job in Boise. There were some politicians involved in all that."
And this sort of don't-lock-horns attitude seems to permeate the agency in several states. Here's how Darrel Short, a recently retired BLM employee from Wyoming, sums up the underpinnings of cowboy/agency politics: "If you start making moves on the livestock industry's [grazing] permits, especially reductions and management systems that are going to cost them some money, they run right to their political people."
While some current BLM employees say they manage the range with regard to science, not politics, others disagree. In a 1998 internal survey initiated by then-Director Shea, one respondent criticized his agency for its political ties: "The BLM purports to support making management decisions based on sound science," the employee wrote, "but rarely does the best science govern the decision-making process."
In the survey, only 16 percent of all participating employees (and, an impressive 50.2 percent responded) rated BLM management practices and policies favorably. Of the nine categories participants were asked to respond to -- ranging from the quality of support services provided to resource management -- none received a majority of "favorable" assessments.