Reducing Polarization: A Modest Amendment to FLPMA- Make the BLM Director a Career Position

Polarization seems a bit like the weather.. everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it.  I can think of a variety of Big Ideas to reduce it, but the people who have gained political power via riding the polarization horse have little interest in putting it out to pasture.  So I’d propose simpler and tinier solutions which might ultimately add up to something larger.

We have two multiple-use agencies at this time, the BLM and the Forest Service.  FLPMA has the BLM Director be a political appointee.  The Forest Service Chief is not (although certainly approved by the Admin).  Folks I know who have worked in both agencies say that the policy pendulum in the Forest Service does not swing as far as with BLM.

As Governor Freudenthal (D) of Wyoming noted  in 2010 for the BLM:

Unfortunately, Washington, D.C. seems to go from pillar to post to placate what is perceived as a key constituency. I only half-heartedly joke with those in industry that, during the prior administration, their names were chiseled above the chairs outside the office of the Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals. With the changes announced yesterday, I fear that we are merely swapping the names above those same chairs to environmental interests, giving them a stranglehold on an already cumbersome process.

Suppose just a tiny tweak.. suppose FLPMA was amended to require the BLM Director to be a career employee? (This could also be done for all the Director roles at Interior, NPS, USFWS, BOR and BIA).   The Assistant Secretaries, Deputy Secretary and Secretary would then, similar to the FS, be politicals to develop the President’s policy as the result of the election. Career Directors should have expertise and agency management experience (preferably in the field, and in the case of BLM, in the West) and work to implement the policy as developed by the politicals. At BLM currently there is the Director (PAS) and one of two Deputy Directors as politicals and some lower level schedule C’s politicals.   If you have too many politicals around in positions of power, it is likely that everything is seem through a partisan lens.  And they don’t always hear different views.  First, it’s easy to discount voices from the other party (they are not worth listening to) and people from their own party who disagree don’t always feel comfortable telling them (you’re either with us or against us; or fear of ticking off powerful people in their own party and possibly future retaliation).  So it’s easy (especially with no career feds around who have western field experience) to be in an echo chamber and rely on people from your past life (ENGOs or industry) for info.  It leads to a situation in which people closer to the ground could come to agreement, but the politicals  in DC  cannot.

Fundamentally, to my mind, the best land solutions are developed locally by local people with local knowledge and local research.

One thing that struck me about Governor Gordon’s letter was the contrast between how this decision was made and the idea  of environmental justice.

EPA defines “environmental justice” as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision‐making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

My bold. Perhaps EJ does not include “all people regardless of whom they vote for”?

Why throw out all that work, and throw the BLM employees under the bus?  For indeed, they and the State and the local folks have put a great deal of work into these plans. Fpr twelve years.

Our political friends come in to Interior and spend a few years making decisions (without having direct experience of these places and people; often without natural resources backgrounds at all). They are just passing through on their way to their next law firm, ENGO or industry post.  Meanwhile,  BLM employees have to live with the mistrust and the bad decisions that the politicals generate, in the grocery store, in the bleachers at the high school basketball game, and so on, for their entire 30 year ish career.   I’d rather that public involvement was not an elaborate hoax, and that politicals put a finger (tip?) on the scale rather than ignoring it.  For some westerners, picking a surprise alternative seems like an intentional sharp stick in the eye, and if we question it,  we are incipient Bundys (not people seeking environmental justice), and so the unproductive cycle continues.   Our access to federal land, our recreation and in some cases, our livelihoods, are pawns in the R/D chess game, effectively without agency.   Not exactly EJ, to my mind, nor any justice at all.

If Congressfolk asked me “why do this FLPMA amendment now?” I’d say it’s a tiny step towards reducing polarization.  If we are in a climate emergency, we need BLM employees (who, we remember, are down in numbers to the extent that the Admin is concerned) to not waste their time on doing and redoing plans based on the predilections of people in each Administration.  We think that the stakeholders and people who work on developing agreements and those who give public comment need to be fairly and meaningfully involved- just like the definition of EJ.. which would mean that the people in the room making the decision would be immersed in those views and agreements.  We want to build trust and the foundation for States, feds, Tribes and locals to work better together.  Things apparently haven’t changed much between Freudenthal’s and Gordon’s concerns- in the last 10 years.  If we want to build a national effort to decarbonize and to adapt to climate change (the Wildfire Commission says wildfire is an emergency).  We need to work together better across federal, state and local governments.

I’ll end with another quote from Governor Gordon’s letter, that talks about fostering relationships that lead ultimately to better governance:

Until very recently, the BLM has been a major partner, along with state and local entities, in bringing about consensus-based Wyoming solutions to major land management questions. Wyoming is a national leader on Greater Sage Grouse, migration corridor management, and responsible development. We did that with local support, stakeholder buy-in, and rigorous on the ground work. That work was not simple or easy, but it showed a respect for the resources and the people of the area. The BLM’s RMP and Preferred Alternative threaten to eliminate all the hard work accomplished by bulldozing over state executive orders, stakeholder engagement, and interagency agreements. Simply put, existing and future partnerships are in jeopardy. A federal fiat won’t run efficiently or well over such a bumpy road.

There is a substantial amount of trust placed in our federal government to manage our public lands effectively and according to law. That trust is fragile and should never be abused. One of the BLM’s Guiding Principles is, “To cultivate community-based conservation, citizen-centered stewardship, and partnership through consultation, cooperation, and communication.”

I think a simple FLPMA amendment would go a long way in that direction.

9 thoughts on “Reducing Polarization: A Modest Amendment to FLPMA- Make the BLM Director a Career Position”

  1. I lean towards agreeing with you that the political insulation the Forest Service has is good for long-term management of the land. When one side is for development and the other is for stopping it, the victories of the latter are always only temporary compared to the long-lasting damage that can result from development victories. Since it’s an asymmetrical battle, a narrower amplitude for the pendulum should a good thing . And then think about what Trump is proposing to do with his next administration – increasing exponentially the number of political appointees (his revenge against the “deep state” that keeps things running relatively smoothly).

    I totally disagree with your view of environmental justice as tool for local control of federal lands. I recently provided comments with some references to back up the idea that EJ is not about rural white communities (I agree with you that the search tool on TSW is pretty marginal.)

    • So locals are OK and their opinions are worthy of concern if they are not “white” or “rural”? Or both? I simply read the EPA definition word for word. That’s the problem with abstractions IMHO it’s not clear who gets to define them.

      • Everyone’s opinion gets covered equally by the requirements for public participation in federal decisions. EJ has a specific meaning in terms of additional attention from federal agencies for “disadvantaged” groups. I’m not an expert on this, but I’ve read more than an ambiguous definition.

        • I think in terms of good governance that if the US EPA and CEQ talk about it and have a definition that is posted on their website, that they should use it in making policy or change the definition on their website. But that’s just me. I’m one of those clarity and transparency types.

        • I am hopeful that the “disadvantage groups” given special attention include the elderly, the young, the working poor, the handicapped, and similar definitions and aren’t focused on skin color or ethnicity. I’ve not seen this much racial profiling by the federal government since the 1960s and think it is only a contributor to further racial devision, as nationally demonstrated during the past few years.

        • Ok, here’s the definition: “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

          The history of its development shows that it is clearly intended to bring treatment of those treated unfairly up to the level of everyone else. I saw no indication that rural white people have been recognized as being treated unfairly.

          My previous research into this is in the comment here (and maybe any further discussion should be continued there).

          • But aren’t poor white people still poor? Is their poverty because they have been treated unfairly, or how do we decide when people are poor whose fault it is?

          • Why not just stop at “fair treatment of all people?” Why the need to add mentions of race, national origin, etc.? And who — exactly — has been “mistreating” these people? The USFS? Media? Who, exactly, and who is deciding what “mistreatment” even means? Sounds elitist, racist, and totally ineffective to me.

            I’m guessing this directive was written by a white government bureaucrat with a good income and and a negative view of “lesser” members of their own race. That’s why these things should be signed by someone specifically before being taken seriously. And then seriously questioned.

          • I encourage you both to look for the answers to these questions instead of asking them rhetorically of someone who admits he is not an expert on when EJ applies (but who did look for some answers above).


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