Can the Bureau of Land Management Shift Gears on Climate Change?
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is poised to play a critical role in the Biden administration’s climate change and conservation agenda. But after years of inertia and mismanagement, does the BLM have the institutional capacity to help the administration deliver on its promises?
The BLM is the largest federal public land management agency, overseeing 245 million acres of land in 12 states. With a climate and biotic crisis upon us, public lands play a crucial role in protecting biodiversity and mitigating climate change. If managed correctly, public lands can protect habitat and habitat corridors and become sinks for greenhouse gas emissions. But the success of the Biden administration’s climate and conservation agenda will depend on the administration’s ability to sweep away the obstacles put in place by the Trump administration and his predecessors.
To help identify some of these obstacles, I had a series of conversations as part of a survey we conducted with current and former BLM employees in a variety of positions across the west. Although we had a small sample size of 23 employees, PEER feels that the views from within the agency should be part of the conversation on retooling the BLM.
To achieve these current goals, the new administration and Congress will need to address important governance issues within the BLM. According to survey results, key issues include:
- Staff shortages, turnover and movement
- Political influence and corruption
- Disparate enforcement of the law
- Lack of transparency and the dwindling use of science
- Retaliation and employee intimidation
- Inching extremism
Of the employees surveyed, three quarters do not believe that the condition of the land and resources is improving. More than three quarters do not believe that BLM:
- Has the staffing or resources to accomplish its mission
- Meaningfully integrates climate change into resource planning, prioritizes resource protection
- Relies upon best available science in decision-making
- Is headed in the right direction
Current and former BLM staff made a number of recommendations about how to remedy these governance issues and actions that can be categorized as:
- Rebuilding employee trust and morale
- Improving staffing
- Embracing stakeholder partnerships
- Making science-based decisions
- Building better management
- Engaging the public
When we dug into the staffing numbers, I was amazed by how much the agency can do with so few employees. Despite an expanding workload, BLM staff levels have continued to shrink. Visitation numbers are up on public lands, recreation numbers are increasing, and oil and gas leasing was on hyper drive during the Trump administration. Furthermore, there are new uses proposed, like alternative energy applications, and the agency is still responsible for managing traditional uses of the land, like grazing. It is surprising that the agency hasn’t snapped under the pressure.
It is going to take work to make the structural changes within the agency to implement the Biden goals of tackling the climate crisis and conservation. The administration has committed to proposals like 30×30—that is, conserving 30% of the land and water by 2030. This bold move could guarantee that America’s public lands are protected for future generations. We must help support these goals and build the necessary foundations within the agency to protect our public lands.
Chandra Rosenthal is the Director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain Office located in Denver, CO.