Conservationists fear BLM changes will harm Arizona public lands

By: - August 19, 2019 12:04 pm

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Northern Arizona. Photo by Bureau of Land Management | Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Conservationists and environmental groups are concerned a series of changes within the Bureau of Land Management will lead to more oil, gas and mining uses of public lands.

Ardent public land critic William Perry Pendley last month assumed leadership of the BLM, causing outcry and criticism from conservation and environmentalist groups. 

Pendley, a former Department of the Interior appointee in the Reagan administration, is known as a prominent anti-public land litigator. He formerly served as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an anti-public land nonprofit group, and has several times sued the federal government on behalf of private extraction interests. 

He wrote a 2016 column for National Review titled “The Federal Government Should Follow the Constitution and Sell Its Western Lands.” The following year, he wrote another National Review column calling for Trump to fire former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke. 

Pendley is not Senate-confirmed, which means his term as acting director will expire on Sept. 30 unless extended. He is one of many in a series of acting BLM heads under the Trump administration, going back to the departure of the last confirmed director, Neil Kornze, who left was appointed in 2013 and served until the Trump administration took over in January 2017. 

Pendley’s appointment comes not long after the Department of the Interior announced a radical reorganization of the BLM, which includes moving the national headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colo. Activists say the reorganization will allow the BLM to scale up the privatization of public lands through sell-offs and leases to extractive companies.

“One aim is to put the BLM headquarters in an oil and gas town – in an oil and gas congressional district,” Taylor McKinnon, a Flagstaff-based activist and senior public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Arizona Mirror. He added that the relocation is “forcing BLM staff to choose between their families and their careers.”

Interior Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash wrote in a July 16, 2018, letter to New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall that “bipartisan support illustrates a number of significant benefits, ranging from more informed decision-making to increased efficiency and coordination among stakeholders and the Department’s agencies.”

The letter also mentioned 34 positions being moved from Washington, D.C., to the Arizona State Office and National Training Center, both in Phoenix. 

McKinnon said this is a way for the BLM to shed senior staff who would otherwise resist the new direction the agency is headed. The DOI offers a very different set of reasons. 

A representative of the BLM’s Arizona State Office directed all Arizona Mirror questions about the restructuring to the DOI. 

“A move of the core functions of the Bureau of Land Management – including over half of its senior executives – to the West would make the Bureau more efficient, effective, and responsive,” a DOI spokesperson told the Mirror.

“Such a shift would strengthen the federal-state partnership, allowing both BLM and the states to benefit from the development of good-neighbor policies and procedures on the ground. Relocations would also allow for reductions in travel time and cost, and improved management and customer service.”

Activists who dispute current private uses of public land don’t buy that rationale, especially since a document published on the DOI website lists another BLM land auction scheduled for Dec. 4. 

The BLM manages 12.2 million acres of public land in Arizona, which is about 16% of the total land area of the state. Arizona has the sixth-most publicly owned land of any state in the union. 

BLM lands in AZ map
Map by Parker Shea | Arizona Mirror

This year, there have already been several lawsuits disputing private uses of public land in Arizona, largely centered on the federal government leasing land to oil, gas and mining companies.

Last year, for example, the BLM auctioned more than 4,000 acres of land near the Petrified National Forest to oil and gas companies. Several environmental interest groups sued the BLM last month over that decision, arguing the agency did not conduct a proper environmental and community impact analysis.

The Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity allege that the BLM leased lands in Apache and Navajo counties “without ever analyzing the impacts of these leases on local communities, public lands, wildlife, and the environment,” according to the complaint. 

McKinnon said these types of complaints will only become more common as the BLM moves to shed more of its public land. 

“Anyone who cares about public lands in Arizona should be deeply concerned,” McKinnon said. 

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Parker Shea

Parker Shea joins the Arizona Mirror after recently graduating from Arizona State University, where he was editor-in-chief of State Press Magazine. He hopes to one day have a career reporting on issues related to the environment. He is a daily runner and enjoys exploring the Arizona wilderness.

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