Before retirement, I worked in St. George for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for 15 years. I’ve also been a Washington County resident for more than 20 years. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore and enjoy the spectacularly scenic and biologically diverse BLM lands in Utah. I know that these BLM lands belong to all Americans, and I hope that future generations will be able to similarly explore and enjoy “their” public lands.
However, if current trends continue, I know that many BLM lands will become increasingly developed, degraded and fragmented. The environmental quality and ecological health of these BLM lands will continue downward while the human demands on these lands will continue upward. Current BLM management is inadequate for two basic reasons: out-of-date BLM regulations and a dominant BLM management culture that tends to be heavily biased toward development and against land protection. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) is the basic statute governing BLM. It was enacted in 1976. A lot has changed in the nearly half century since that enactment. Think climate change, prolonged drought, expanding cheatgrass, more severe wildfires and serious population declines in many native species. But BLM regulations under FLPMA have not kept pace with these rapid environmental changes nor the best science associated with how to cope with them.
Fortunately, that may be about to change. BLM recently released a proposed public lands rule for public comment until June 20. This proposed rule is not a panacea, but it would revise and update BLM regulations in many positive ways. It would encourage the protection of healthy landscapes, restoration of degraded landscapes and use modern science to make more informed land management decisions. It is not intended to adversely affect existing land uses. Instead, it would simply add new management tools to complement existing management and to enable BLM to do more to sustain healthy landscapes that benefit everyone. The original themes in FLPMA were and are “multiple use” and “sustained yield.” The former has been and continues to be BLM’s major priority, often at the expense of the latter. Science now tells us that this is a misleading distinction; healthy sustainable landscapes support and may enhance the productivity of many multiple uses.
Sadly, Utah Republican politicians are already promoting federal legislation (HR 3397) to preemptively force the withdrawal of this proposed rule. They did not even wait for the public comment period to end, those comments to be addressed and any final revised rule to be adopted. I believe this legislation is largely a shameful political stunt that goes against the views of most Utahns. According to a recent poll, more than 70% of Utahns support greater protection for public lands. But these politicians generally receive generous campaign contributions from fossil fuel and other corporate interests that wish to convert more public lands into greater private profits.
I support this proposed rule because it is reasonable, balanced and long overdue. However, even if this rule is adopted, I believe that it may not be properly implemented unless there are significant internal reforms to the BLM’s dominant management culture. For example, the annual BLM performance evaluations should be linked to specific rule-based work objectives, and there should be some random independent audits to confirm outcomes and keep these evaluations honest. Decisions that advance healthy landscapes should be rewarded and those that further degrade those landscapes should be punished. Many BLM managers have already proven that they are willing to ignore or circumvent existing management requirements when they think it would advance their careers and be politically expedient. This cultural pattern must change for any new BLM rule to be effective in the real world.
Our BLM lands need to be better managed. The approval of this proposed rule combined with implementation of internal reforms could help achieve that.
Richard Spotts worked for the Bureau of Land Management for 15 years. Prior to that, he worked as an environmental attorney, registered lobbyist, watershed project director and county zoning administrator. He lives in St. George, where he continues volunteer involvement with public lands and conservation issues.