By Mike Ford
As a former (26 year) member of the BLM family and someone who has spent the last 18+ years working as a public land consultant interacting with BLM daily on a wide range of issues, I offer a perspective from inside and outside the agency. Having grown up in the BLM I hold a special place for the history, people, programs, and mission of the agency. As a public land consultant, I have an equal appreciation of the challenging and occasionally tortured task of working with the agency to achieve important economic development and conservation objectives vital to western economies and the environment. In addition, contemporary management issues and concerns are characterized by third party challenge and litigation, now common to both Democratic and Republican Administrations, and the impact that it is having cannot be overstated.
A recurring theme of all incoming Administrations, for over 40+ years, is a call for some form of reorganization – typically to centralize, decentralize, or downsize staff functions and management. If we are being intellectually honest, history tells us these reorganizations do little more than sap scarce energy and resources (human and fiscal) from other important agency objectives, including economic development and conservation actions. None of the historic reorganization efforts have been sustainable and the only thing we can safely predict is future efforts will have similar results and there will be calls for more reorganization.
I have always embraced the BLM’s historical position of “decentralizing” to the maximum extent possible. Working at the local, regional, and statewide level has been a cornerstone of the BLM’s success, especially during contentious political times. On the other hand, having worked in both the field and the Washington Office (WO), and having served in a BLM Congressional fellowship on Capitol Hill, I understand the critical need for coordinated management and leadership in Washington, DC especially as it relates to working with the Department of the Interior (DOI) and Congress, in support of the field.
The BLM has a strong track record of flexibility and responsiveness adjusting to political stimulus, especially when considering the disparate public and political viewpoints the BLM has managed since passage of FLPMA in 1976. In my personal and professional opinion the challenge has not been with the agencies organization, although some change and adaptation is occasionally necessary. The challenge has been based upon the BLM’s multiple use mission, as defined in FLPMA, and the need to address a wide range of resource concerns advanced by varied public interests. To that end, issues of “honest disagreement” will never be avoided but the BLM’s ability to focus on its multiple use mission, in accordance with a comprehensive land use planning process, is best met by involving as many people as possible locally, regionally, and nationally. Maintaining an active and “knowledgeable” staff and management presence in Washington, DC is central to that goal.
One of the historic keys to a successful and viable presence in Washington, DC was recruitment and placement of “experienced” field staff and managers in the WO. We have seen a diminishment of this requirement over the years and having experienced field staff and managers in the WO no longer appears to be an agency priority. As a result, WO staff and managers are not always best able to clearly articulate the social, environmental, economic, legislative and regulatory issues central to effective decision making within the DOI and on Capitol Hill. Having BLM’s best, brightest, and most experienced field personnel in the WO would be a significant enhancement.
Note: This comment is in not intended to demean many of the hard working individuals in the current WO. It does, however, speak to an important organizational issue that is, perhaps, more acute and ripe for discussion and consideration.
Finally, if the current Administration wants to enhance decision making and customer service, including improved responsiveness to local and regional communities, it must immediately consider relinquishing control over some of the extraordinary and unnecessary review and oversight that seems to grow with each incoming Administration. For instance, State Directors and District Managers must be able to issue routine Notices of Realty Action and simple Federal Register notices without burdensome review and approval by the WO and the DOI. This simple change alone would result in substantial improvement and benefit everyone. There are numerous other oversight and review processes that could be revised at minimal — or no — cost. Proposed reorganization efforts resulting in the transfer of the BLM senior leadership and HQ functions to the West, will do little to advance current agendas or overcome critical capacity and operational/mission issues vital to the BLM’s future success.