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Public Lands Decisions Best Made in D.C., Acting BLM Chief Says

Oct. 16, 2019, 10:01 AM

Land decisions made under the National Environmental Policy Act should be made at Interior Department headquarters in Washington, says acting BLM director William Perry Pendley.

Any update to a local BLM land management plan, including a decision to lift environmental protections from an area of critical environmental concern, is “not a local decision,” Pendley told Bloomberg Environment in an interview Oct. 11 at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in Fort Collins, Colo.

“The secretary is going to hear from them [the public] through their members of Congress and their senators, and so we’ve got to be on top of these issues,” Pendley said. “And frankly, that’s on us, that’s not on some career guy who’s spent 30 years in BLM as a state director.”

That’s a shift from how these land decisions were made in the past. Traditionally, most decisions about the use of public lands have been made at the BLM’s state-level and local offices. These decisions determine what areas are open to oil and gas development, which are recommended for wilderness designation, and where grazing, off-road vehicles, and other uses are allowed.

State BLM directors are political appointees, and the rest of those offices are made up of such career staff members as scientists and rangeland specialists.

Consolidating Power

Critics and retired BLM officials say Pendley’s statements show that the Interior Department aims to consolidate federal land management decisions among political appointees in Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s Washington office, even as the agency moves BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo.

The agency says the 200 headquarters staff members being moved to locations in the West should be closer to the land they manage.

Pendley said he supports that rationale but argued that decisions made under the National Environmental Policy Act should be made in Washington.

Consolidating decisions among top administration lands officials could lead to more oil, gas, and other development on federal lands throughout the West, said Kit Muller, a strategic planner for BLM in Washington until he retired in 2018.

Updating Land Management Plans

At the same time, BLM is systematically updating its local land management plans to allow for more oil, gas, coal, and timber production while, in some cases, proposing to remove protections for some natural areas.

The Interior Department in 2018 mandated that a “review team"—composed of mostly political appointees at BLM and in the Interior secretary’s office—review each step of every BLM environmental impact statement under NEPA.

No NEPA decision is a minor decision, Pendley said.

“If you’re doing NEPA, it’s a big deal,” and all such decisions are reviewed by the Interior secretary’s office, he said. “We’re proposing oil and gas leasing on the coastal plain in Alaska, and what are they suggesting that some assistant director over at the M Street office is supposed to make a final call on that? That’s secretarial-level stuff.”

Elevating Decisions to Washington

“What he’s literally admitting—they [Interior officials] are making the decisions, even decisions that in the past, the good old days, RMP [resource management plan] revisions were local decisions,” said Mary Jo Rugwell, who served as BLM Wyoming state director until she retired in August.

She said that although state-level BLM officials technically have the authority to sign off on projects under NEPA, they don’t have the freedom to counter the will of Interior Department officials in Washington.

If the Interior secretary’s office doesn’t approve of the local decisions, the local offices will be required to start over, she said.

“What’s the point of moving the BLM people to Grand Junction so that decision making is closer to the West if the decisions are going to be made at the department?” Rugwell said. “It makes no sense.”

Bob Abbey, the first BLM director in the Obama administration, said he supports making NEPA decisions more efficient, but added that Pendley’s statements show all major federal land decisions are being made by Bernhardt’s office.

“Everything is being elevated to Washington, D.C., and to the secretary’s key staff,” unlike in the past, when the authority remained with state and district BLM managers, Abbey said. He retired in 2012 after 34 years as a federal and state official.

In reviewing local NEPA decisions, the Interior Department is dismissing the input of BLM staff on the ground in the West who have been working with local governments and the public to balance multiple uses of federal land, said Nada Culver, vice president for public lands at the National Audubon Society.

“The reason people are asking him [Pendley] about the drastic changes to drop virtually all conservation protections in plan revisions and to move to open every possible acre to oil and gas development is that it is obviously a decision coming from Washington, D.C.—not because they think it should be,” Culver said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com