BLM director puts more emphasis on traditional public land users
RENO – Contrary to her critics’ claims, the head of the Bureau of Land Management insists she enjoys the solitude of federally protected wilderness just as much as the next person.
“There is something wonderfully unique about those primitive wilderness areas,” BLM Director Kathleen Clarke said. “In this busy, fast-paced world we live in where we are all wired with two or three devices, that sort of solitude is treasured.
“But there also are many people _ especially in the West _ who think those lands should be open for all types of recreation. And in many Western communities, you also have local economies that are dependent on their ability to access public land for grazing, mining, logging,traditional uses.
“All those things are critical to the well-being and the quality of life of the people who live on those lands,” she told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Clarke, a lawyer and former director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, was appointed by President Bush in January 2002 to be the first woman to lead the bureau, which coordinates oil and gas mining, timber harvesting, cattle grazing and conservation on 264 million acres of federal land across the West.
She said one of the biggest changes in federal land management the past decade is the Bush administration’s emphasis on hearing the voice of those who use public lands.
That includes growing demands for recreational uses such as mountain biking, sand-sailing and cliff diving as well as traditional commercial uses, she said.
“We are attempting to engage much more closely with user groups and local communities,” said Clarke, a former aide to the late Sen. Wallace Bennett, R-Utah, and ex-Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, who estimates she spends about half her time outside Washington, D.C.
“I am a sincere believer that we will do a better job if we listen,” she said. “I think under this secretary of the interior (Gale Norton) there is a very, very firm commitment to working with local people as well as national groups to understand what is the best management schemes for the land.”
Many of those local user groups say the early stages of her efforts have been a great success.
“She is looking to us for suggestions as to how best manage the resource. That’s kind of a new feeling,” said John Falen, an Orvada rancher who is chairman of public lands issues for the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association. “In the previous administration, (then-Interior Secretary) Bruce Babbitt was out to get us. He made a pretty successful stab at it.”
Critics say the talk of inclusion doesn’t apply to conservation groups pushing to put more BLM land off-limits to commercial activity, including oil and gas drilling.
“From our perspective, they are simply reaching out to those constituents that have a financial interest in the exploitation of publicly owned resources _ those constituencies being the oil, coal, hardrock mining, livestock and logging industries,” said Dave Alberswerth, a public policy specialist for The Wilderness Society.
Of all the federal land management agencies, the BLM has the least percentage of its land locked up in wilderness _ just 6.5 million acres or less than 3 percent of the land it manages, Alberswerth said. That compares with 34 million acres of wilderness across the Forest Service’s 191 million acres of national forests.
“So wilderness can’t really be too important to her,” Alberswerth said.
“The highest priority for this administration in terms of public land management is oil and gas development. Protecting environmental values, cultural values, wildlife habitat _ that all takes a back seat,” he said.
Clarke said it’s not fair to compare the BLM to other federal agencies, such as the Forest Service,U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (20 percent wilderness) or National Park Service (42 percent wilderness).
“The BLM is unique to other federal land management agencies in that it has the mandate under our laws to work to develop oil, gas and minerals on public lands for the benefit of the nation _ to add wealth to the treasury and promote the standard of our economy,” she said.
Earlier this month, the Bush administration directed federal land managers to remove obstacles to oil and gas development in parts of five Rocky Mountain states.
“We are trying to seek ways to very sensitively develop those resources to meet the demands of this nation. About one-third of the consumed energy resources in this country come off public lands,” Clarke said.
“I’d like to see the debate change from energy versus environment, to how we manage energy resources in an environmentally sensitive way.”
The same goes for recreation, she said, from dune buggies to parachutes.
“We continue to have new extreme sports _ people who want to dive off cliffs on public lands. I went wind-sailing on BLM land. I didn’t even know that sort of sport existed,” Clarke said.
“We didn’t have mountain bikes 20 years ago. Now we manage how mountain bikes will access the land in places like Moab (Utah) and Grand Junction (Colorado). There seems to be a new trend every two or three years.
“All those things have impacts on public lands. We need to balance that recreation with the impacts.”
While demands for recreation will continue to grow, Clarke said traditional users such as ranchers should not be fearful of being run off the land.
“I personally believe that grazing is an important use of public land _ one that is clearly defined by the BLM,” she said.
“If we were to eliminate public lands grazing, there are other things at risk. Ranchers often have a base of land that is privately owned that constitutes prime wildlife habitat _ winter range for elk and deer that winter on private lands and spend summers on public lands.
“If we eliminate their ability to make a living grazing, many will sell out,” she said. “We have seen many important riparian areas, winter wildlife range, start to go into decline or go into condos or ranchettes, which causes fragmentation of habitat.
“It behooves us to support these activities.”