By Jesse Juen

Last April I had the opportunity to meet and introduce the Public Lands Foundation (PLF) to the recently Senate approved Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, at the TRCP Capital Conservation Awards Dinner.  I shared that PLF had a tremendous amount of experience, expertise and passion available to him and the Department on all things related to the Bureau of Land Management.   The next evening I was privileged to attend a reception for Secretary Zinke hosted by REI at their beautiful store in Washington DC.  This was the first opportunity for me to hear the Secretary’s vision for reorganizing many of the Interior agencies including BLM.  His vision was based upon his military experience to establish rotating leadership over all the natural resource agencies.  He described a scenario where the BLM would oversee the agencies for a year and then rotate to an NPS director for a year and so on.  His term for it at the time was “Regional Joint Management Areas“.  These areas would establish an additional Senior Executive decision making level above BLM State Directors that would report to the Department of the Interior.  The Secretary’s presentation was not designed for Q & A’s but you did have the opportunity to grab him as he was crowd mingling or headed out the door.   I thought it would be prudent to gauge his comments with some of my other friends and colleagues in the audience before attempting a follow up conversation.  Three of my colleagues said they didn’t remember hearing any of that and two others said they heard it but didn’t understand what he was talking about.  By the time I finished polling he was gone.

The Secretary’s proposal for reorganization has morphed over the last 7 months, as we would all expect, and now that states and others have had the opportunity to put their ornaments on the Christmas tree it includes multiple variations.   My first question to Secretary Zinke would be “what is the issue or problem you want to resolve?”  If he can articulate that, then we have a phenomenal amount of experience and expertise at PLF to help develop very good options to address it.   In 210 BC, Petronius Arbiter said “We trained hard–but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized— I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”   Within the public service arena, we have all learned this is human nature and not unique to a political party.

At our September annual PLF meeting, acting BLM Director Mike Nedd, shared that the Secretary wants to reorganize to increase efficiencies, especially at the SES level in the Department.  He also shared that the Secretary has a list of priorities and the roles BLM has taken to help the Department achieve those priorities.  What we still don’t know is what efficiencies the Secretary would like to increase.  I can take a logical guess at what some of them might be for BLM given the list of BLM priorities Mike Nedd shared with us.  It might include issuing energy leases and permits faster; streamlining NEPA to produce decisions faster; reduce government staff quickly; increase profit margins from public lands quickly; increase public access to public lands faster; reduce regulatory burdens on permittees, lessees, right of way holders and potential business development opportunities quicker; and increase revenues for local and rural communities quicker.  All important and doable within BLM’s mission but not reorganization dependent in my mind.

Unfortunately, ongoing political agendas will continue to cloud the realities of any proposed reorganization.   If the administration’s FY 2018 proposed budget with its 13.4% funding and 4,000 FTE reductions for DOI is implemented, desires for efficiencies become a mute point.  In addition, Secretary Zinke’s announcement in September that 30% of the 70,000 Department employees were not loyal to the flag as a rationale for his proposed reorganization demonstrates political motivation.

One of the things I have learned throughout my career with numerous reorganizations is that BLM’s greatest strength is that it has Executive decision makers (State Directors) in each western state as the key person who can carry the administration’s desires forward while working one on one with the State and Federal delegation, Governor, Tribal Nations and many other organizations to bridge the political goals with the needs of that State’s unique culture, resources, people and economies and vice versa.  It is also one of the key stimulants for a tremendous amount of innovation and creativity at the local level to solving complex problems that can be shared across field offices and state boundaries but not imposed upon others if this isn’t the best approach for them.   As veteran BLM’rs we have watched reorganizations sap the energy out of organizations, eat up tremendous amounts of time, burn extraordinary amounts of public funds and expend significant political capital.  PLF believes to accomplish quick and efficient changes, strategic political capital could be used in much more productive ways and PLF would be very willing to help the Department with those issues.

What I hope to achieve through the PLF reorganization blog is highlighting why reorganization should not be this administration’s or any administration’s first choice to “achieve efficiencies” based upon the tremendous amount of trials and tribulations and alternate successes we at PLF have experienced over the last 6 decades.  In the interim, the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will hold an oversight hearing titled, “Transforming the Department of the Interior for the 21st Century.”   The PLF will be submitting a letter for the record regarding the hearing.  Maybe this hearing will shed some light about the problem that is trying to be solved and how the Secretary believes reorganization will fix those issues.