By Ray Brady
I offer my perspectives on recent announcements by the Secretary of the Interior on a proposed reorganization of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the possible move of the BLM headquarters to a location in the west to potentially provide for more effective government and improved management of our public lands. The proposal also includes the consolidation of DOI agency chains-of-command into Regional Joint Management Areas, similar to a joint military command center. It is hoped that the perspectives of experienced BLM career staff, including input from the Public Lands Foundation, and stakeholder groups interested in public land management issues are considered and provided with an opportunity to contribute to the discussions on any organizational changes. I provide some examples of more effective approaches to improve organizational efficiencies at the end of this narrative.
I recently retired from the BLM after more than 40 years of public service with the BLM and the USGS in a variety of Field, State and Washington Office (WO) staff and management level positions. These included working in the minerals, lands and realty, and energy program areas including the oil and gas, coal, oil shale, and renewable energy programs. Over the years, I have experienced numerous reorganization efforts such as the Forest Service/BLM Interchange, Service First, the MMS/BLM Merger, Reinventing Government Initiative, WO Downsizing, and the BLM two-tier organization proposals. The BLM has suffered from a history of new Administrations making bold organizational changes in the name of streamlining or improving government efficiencies. Invariably, however, the results of these organizational changes have not lived up to their goals. Experience has also shown that these efforts are extremely disruptive to the organization and staff, take away from meeting other goals and priorities of the Department and the BLM, are a drain on the fiscal and human resources capital of the organization, and impact the ability to accomplish other important agency objectives. Most of these reorganization efforts have not been sustainable and it is predicted that the proposed reorganization and future efforts will also have similar results that will call for additional reorganizational changes.
The perception by the current Administration that most BLM decisions are made in the Washington Office, far removed from local communities, local interests, and the States, is simply not based on the facts and should not be used to justify the ill conceived idea to reorganize and move the BLM headquarters to the west. The BLM is already a decentralized organization with presence in every western State and most actions and decisions are officially delegated to line officers and managers in BLM Field and State Offices. The BLM State Directors are Senior Executives within the agency and more than 95% of all BLM positions are already located in BLM Field and State Offices. The small number of BLM positions currently located in the WO is focused on legislative and congressional outreach and coordination, national policy oversight, budget development, Department and other agency coordination, and national stakeholder outreach. The BLM positions located in the WO reflect the broad scope of the resource programs managed by the multiple-use mission of the BLM under the mandates of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and differ from the scope of programs managed by the other DOI agencies. Positions include career staff with expertise in lands and realty programs; solid minerals; fluid minerals; renewable energy; land use planning and NEPA; range; forestry; riparian and vegetation management; fish and wildlife resources; cultural and paleontological resources; wild horse and burro management; recreation resources; special management areas; education and partnership initiatives; environmental hazards; public affairs; and regulatory and legislative affairs. These program activities and expertise needed at the headquarters level are in addition to the business management functions required of any agency and require experienced staff to manage the budget development and execution process between the BLM, the Department, and OMB. The BLM Field and State Offices, including the BLM State Directors as Senior Executive leaders of the agency, are already the “boots on the ground” and the points of contact with local communities, local interests and the States. These BLM Field managers, not BLM WO managers, are the decision makers on public land actions. However, if the current Administration wants to enhance decision-making, streamline and improve efficiencies, and improve customer service, it must consider relinquishing control over some of the extraordinary and unnecessary reviews and oversight that seems to grow with each new Administration. For example, BLM State Directors should be able to issue routine Notices of Realty Action and simple Federal Register Notices without the burdensome review and approval currently required by the BLM WO and the DOI. This simple change alone would result in substantial improvement in efficiencies. Proposed reorganization efforts resulting in the transfer of BLM headquarters leadership and functions to the west would do little to advance current agendas or overcome critical funding needs or operational issues important to the future management of our public lands.
The proposed establishment of interagency Regional Joint Management Areas or joint command centers would establish another tier in the BLM organizational structure and be a recipe for ineffective and slower decision making, greater removal of local community involvement and participation, greater public and industry confusion on who to work with, likely errors in the application of different agency laws and regulations, and an open invitation for increased litigation. The BLM headquarters is best located in close proximity to the Secretary of the Interior and other Department staff, other Federal agency senior officials, Congressional staff and Committees, and national stakeholder organizations to effectively focus on issues of national importance, significance and priority. The BLM that manages public lands for all Americans should not be placed under the influence of a single western State.
A more effective approach to improve efficiencies, instead of pursuing ill-advised reorganization efforts, is demonstrated by the actions that the Department and the BLM took to implement actions related to the Energy Policy Act of 2005. President Bush on August 8, 2005 signed into law the Energy Policy Act as a major piece of energy legislation to encourage energy efficiency and conservation, promote alternative and renewable energy sources, reduce dependence on foreign sources of energy, and increase domestic production of oil and natural gas. The DOI and in particular the BLM played a critical role in implementing the Act and developing the many initiatives and programs with respect to energy resources on the public lands. Because of the significant role the BLM plays in managing onshore energy development on the public lands, it was given a role to play in the implementation of some 60 provisions of the Act and tasked as the lead agency for 52 of those tasks. The Department formed an executive-level Interior Energy Coordination Council (ECC) to coordinate implementation within DOI, ensure appropriate allocation of resources, ensure timelines were met, and ensure that decisions were promptly made and coordinated. An ECC Liaison Group of senior interagency career staff was formed to deal with the day-to-day tasks and implementation actions under the Act. The BLM formed an Energy Policy Act Team of BLM Field, State and WO career staff to focus on the regulatory and policy work required for each of the BLM assigned tasks. Approximately 80% of the BLM tasks were completed within 2 years of passage of the Act and all tasks were subsequently completed. This commitment of resources and requirement for significant interagency coordination and collaboration, including substantial involvement of BLM Field and State Office staffs, was accomplished without the need for any overarching reorganization effort.
One BLM task under the Energy Policy Act (Section 365) was the establishment of seven oil and gas Pilot Offices in existing BLM Field offices in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to streamline the APD permitting process and inspection and enforcement (I&E) activities. An interagency MOU was signed on October 24, 2005, ahead of the 90-day timeframe required by the Act, between the DOI, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to facilitate and improve the oil and gas permitting process. The DOI participating agencies included the BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Minerals Management Service. The Minerals Management Service on November 1, 2005 established a Treasury Account for the Permit Processing Improvement Fund established by the Act to provide for the transfer of funds among the agencies to support their work in the Pilot Offices. The BLM in October 2005 began a recruitment process for an initial 105 positions to support the APD approval process and I&E activities. The BLM later increased the total number of positions for the Pilot Offices to 150 positions. The States of New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado also agreed to participate in the Pilot Project effort. These efforts resulted in an increase in APDs processed from 7,351 APDs in 2004 to 8,854 APDs in 2006. The number of inspections completed also substantially increased. These accomplishments were made without the need for any overarching reorganization effort.
Another BLM task under the Energy Policy Act (Section 211) was the establishment of a goal to approve 10,000 megawatts (MWs) of non-hydropower renewable energy projects on the public lands before the year 2015. In response to this task, the Department in 2009 established an interagency Renewable Energy Strike Team to facilitate coordination and processing of renewable energy project applications on the public lands. The BLM also established Renewable Energy Coordination Offices (RECO) under the existing BLM organization structure in California, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming and the BLM WO. With this renewed focus and priorities established by the Department, the BLM approved over 10,000 MWs of solar, wind and geothermal energy projects by the end of 2012 – 3 years ahead of schedule. In addition, the BLM completed a Programmatic Solar Energy EIS in October 2012, which designated approximately 285,000 acres within 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) in the southwestern States as priority locations for solar energy development on the public lands. A competitive auction for solar energy development in the Dry Lake SEZ in Nevada was held in June 2014 that generated $5.8 million in revenues. Permitting of the projects within the Dry Lake SEZ was completed within a 10-month timeframe and construction was recently completed. Final regulations were published in December 2016 to provide for competitive leasing and help facilitate solar and wind energy development on the public lands. These accomplishments were made without the need for any overarching reorganization effort.
In summary, the reorganization effort as currently envisioned by the Department would not improve management of the public lands or improve efficiencies. It is imperative that the Department and the current BLM leadership first identify the problems that need to be addressed, identify why these problems are occurring, and then identify possible options to resolve the problems. It does not appear the Administration has taken these steps or solicited the input of experienced BLM career staff, the Public Lands Foundation, or interested stakeholder groups.