President Biden signed an executive order with the commendable goal of protecting 30 percent of our nation’s lands and waters by 2030. If achieved, this would be a significant response to the mounting climate and extinction crises.
The largest chunks of federal lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), particularly here in the West. BLM could therefore play a key role in whether this protection goal is met. Unfortunately, BLM cannot currently fulfill this role because it has repeatedly demonstrated that it cannot protect its lands that already have protective legal designations.
Despite strong public opposition and science against it, BLM continues to allow harmful commercial livestock grazing and other uses in many of its national monuments, national conservation areas, wilderness areas, and areas of critical environmental concern. For example, BLM recently approved a controversial Northern Corridor Highway through its Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in southwest Utah. This approval likely violates several laws, conflicts with the statutory conservation purposes of this area, degrades lands acquired for permanent protection, and would jeopardize threatened Mojave desert tortoises and destroy their legally designated critical habitat.
Before I took early retirement, I worked for BLM as a Planning and Environmental Coordinator from 2002 and 2017. I learned the sad truth that BLM’s dominant management culture is regressive, biased, and secretive. This culture is deeply embedded and persisted during the eight Obama administration years. Managers tend to be most afraid of Republican politicians, influential commercial interests, and angry ranchers. They are risk-averse and willing to allow political expediency to supersede the law and science. This results in “protection” as words on legal documents but not necessarily as actual outcomes.
President Biden must fundamentally reform BLM’s dominant management culture. Managers who put crass political calculations and their own “multiple use” biases over the law, science, and public interest should be removed. As should managers who fail to deal with harmful uses such as trespass grazing or are unable to reverse downward resource trends under their control. If this reform is successful, BLM lands designated for protection could actually receive it. Without this reform, much of any claimed BLM progress on this protection would be a fraudulent illusion.
Richard Spotts, St. George
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