by Ed Shepard

My late Uncle Albert was a cattle rancher from the Nebraska Sandhills and a bit of a cowboy philosopher.  I remember someone asking him to predict how hard the upcoming winter was going to be based on the height of the skunk cabbage.  I always think of him and his response whenever trying to predict something. He replied, “You want to know how bad a winter we’re going to have?  Well, I’ll tell you how bad a winter we’re going to have.  You ask me next spring!”  That thought served me well the years I worked in fire management and we tried to figure out what kind of a fire season we were going to have. Fortunately, the men and women in Predictive Service have it a little easier these days than trying to rely on the height of the skunk cabbage.  They are blessed with more modern equipment, models, and experience.  And, they are predicting another challenging season. They are predicting an above normal season across a large swath of the West and we have already burned more acres than the 10-year average, although fire starts are a little less.  I think it is safe to say that we can plan on breathing smoke again this summer.   PLF wishes all firefighters a safe season.  And, if you want to know how many fires we’re going to have, ask me in the fall.

Another prediction that BLM managers have to make, but really shouldn’t have to, is the annual appropriation for the fiscal year.  For way too many years, the Congress has not done its job in a timely manner and managers are left trying to manage betting on a roll of the dice.   It is not acceptable for managers to be expected to do their job when they don’t know what they have for resources or what is expected of them.  Uncle Albert would say, “You want to know how much money I have to do my job and what I’m expected to accomplish?  Well, I’ll tell you.  You ask me after mid-year.”  For the first time in many years, both the House and Senate appropriations committees have reported bills out of committee and hopefully they will make it to the floor and be enacted before the start of FY 2019.  But, I won’t make a prediction on that.  The House mark places the BLM at $1.4 billion and the Senate at $1.34 billion; both up significantly from the Administration’s budget proposal.  I won’t make a prediction on the success of an actual appropriation before October 1, but it is the closest to actually happening than I think we’ve been in years.

The BLM continues to struggle with vacancies in key leadership positions. At last count, I think BLM has half of the state director positions vacant and/or filled with acting directors.  While this is a good way for people to gain experience in leadership roles, we all know how it affects the continuity of work.  Hopefully, BLM will be successful in filling those positions on a more permanent basis. Of course, two very key positions that remain unfilled are the Director and Deputy Director for Operations positions. Deputy Director for Programs and Policy Brian Steed continues to serve with the authority of the Director and, in my opinion is doing a good job of keeping the Bureau afloat.  Within the last few weeks Mike Nedd, who has been acting in the Deputy Director role, returned to his job as AD-300.  Mike served as acting Deputy for over a year.  Rich Cardinale has replaced Mike for the next 60 or more days.  Those of you that have retired in the last few years probably remember Rich as the Chief of Staff for the Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management.  Rich is a seasoned veteran in the Main Interior Building and will serve the Bureau well over the next few months.  Thank you to all the folks that have stepped up to keep the BLM running during the lengthy transition of leadership.

The events of the last few years related to the Bundy’s and other militia-type incidents have prompted some, including some members of Congress, to question the need for the BLM to have a law enforcement program.  Some have questioned the BLM’s authority to even have law enforcement officers, while others have suggested limiting their role and the tools they use to do their job.  There are many opinions on this, even within the PLF membership.  However, I think the overall feeling of PLF members is that there is a role for BLM law enforcement and there is no question that BLM has statutory authority for law enforcement.  Like any program, it is right to periodically conduct a review and adjust the program as needed.  These recent events have led BLM to do just that.  An oversight hearing conducted by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining prompted PLF to submit a statement for the record in support of BLM law enforcement and providing recommendations that could be considered to improve the program.  Many of the suggested changes are already being considered by the BLM as Deputy Director Steed testified to at the hearing. The PLF followed up our statement to the Subcommittee with a letter to BLM outlining our recommendations and affirming PLF’s support of the BLM law enforcement program.

The Fourth Biennial Student Congress on Public Land Policy for Land Management is coming up fast.  This year’s Congress is being held in Baker City, Oregon, August 22-25.  The theme is Rivers and Trails in celebration of the 50thanniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails Act.  We have 28 students coming from 20 different schools and 12 states, and one student from Canada.  The participants will bring a vast diversity of backgrounds and educational interests including geology, rivers and trails, law, range, wildlife, recreation and more, including three that are actively involved in tribal issues. We are looking forward to lively discussions and a great time.  As usual, we will be presenting the results to the BLM Director later this year. Thanks to Oregon-Washington State Director Jamie Connell and her staff for all their hard work as well as all of the PLF committee led by Mike Ferguson.  Jamie has promised that there will be no smoke in the air, but if there is, it will make the setting historically accurate as many of the pioneers on the Oregon Trail mention smoky conditions in their journals.

Finally, don’t forget the annual meeting is coming up September 11-14 at the Big Horn Resort in Billings, Montana.  The meeting theme is very timely, “Access to Public Lands.”  At the Board meeting we will be discussing the PLF’s Strategic Plan. The meeting promises to be a fun three days of interesting discussions, a field tour, BBQ, and banquet.  And, don’t forget to bring items for the silent auction to raise funds for the George Lea Founder’s Scholarships.  These meetings take a lot of work by the organizing committee and close coordination with the BLM office.  Thank you to the Montana PLF folks and the Montana BLM.  I hope to see you in Billings.

Have a safe and fun summer!