Retired AZ Bureau of Land Management leaders: Trump’s reorganization will gut the agency we built

By: - October 2, 2019 4:02 pm

The Bureau of Land Management headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“We trained hard … but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

Former Bureau of Land Management Arizona State Director Dean Bibles has kept that quotation on a scratch of paper in the top drawer of his work desk since he first became a BLM manager nearly six decades ago.

He at first thought the quotation was written by an early-A.D. Roman courtier called Petronius Arbiter. Historians now say this is a common misattribution — that it had actually been from a book by Charlton Ogburn, who was a journalist writing about the Burma Campaign of World War II. 

It doesn’t matter to Bibles which is the case. 

Bibles kept this quotation in the front of his mind in his 40 years at the BLM. And, he added, this quotation is prescient of the looming, troubled reorganization of the nation’s public land agency under the Trump administration. 

“The real purpose (of a reorganization) is rarely ever stated,” Bibles told Arizona Mirror. “It’s for some other purpose. But, you say something like, ‘Oh, we’re going to improve efficiency and move these top people out west.’

“The top people are already out west.”

Bibles would know. He spent decades of his career as one of those top people. He was a career public servant, and he knows as much about the BLM and its history as anyone else alive. 

“He’s amazing,” fellow former BLM Arizona State Director Elaine Zielinski said of Bibles. She served several times as Bibles’s second-in-command and later in her career took many of the same leadership posts. 

“He’s just a wonderful mentor.” 

Zielinski recounted that, when someone would mention an obscure detail in a meeting that was contained in a plan hundreds of pages long, Bibles would recall exactly the page where that detail was located.

“I think he has a photographic memory,” Zielinski said.

Bibles got his first job with the BLM during the Eisenhower administration, immediately after graduating from Texas A&M in 1957 with a degree in range management. He retired as assistant to the secretary of the Department of the Interior in Washington, D. C., in 1997. This is the highest unappointed position in the entire department. 

In the intervening years, Bibles was state director for Arizona from 1982 to 1989. He then served as state director for Oregon and Washington, along with several stints in Washington, D.C., before retiring at the capitol. 

Bibles’s service was marked by a commitment to conservation. In his four years as state director in Arizona, Bibles used land exchanges to acquire crucial ecosystems, habitats and sites of archaeological value in exchange for BLM land of less public interest. 

Some of the areas BLM acquired during Bibles’ leadership, such as the San Pedro and Las Cienegas National Conservation Areas, are once again facing unique ecological threats: the former, a proposed 12,000-acre fake Italian village; the latter, the most-contested proposed copper mine in the state and a section of President Donald Trump’s border wall

Despite being in his mid-80s, Bibles’s memory is sharp. That is why he said he is deeply upset by the Trump administration’s decision to decentralize the BLM, scattering career BLM staff in D.C. all over the Western states. The administration has repeatedly claimed the move will better embed the agency’s leadership in the areas they are meant to serve. 

This justification has been met with disbelief by former BLM leaders. Dozens of retired senior BLM executives signed a letter to DOI Secretary David Bernhardt demanding the reorganization be halted. 

“The BLM has been well organized to serve both the Washington, D.C. clientele and the western constituents,” according to the Sept. 5 letter. “BLM manages public lands for all Americans. The proposed dismantling of BLM HQ will result in programs and policies being fragmented and inconsistent among states, or virtually all decisions being made by the DOI in Washington, D.C., without the benefit of valuable input from career professionals.”

Currently, more than 95% of staff are already in the western states. The D.C. headquarters is meant to be the field offices’ connection to heads of other federal agencies and Congress. 

“BLM has offices in over 120 western towns. To say that they’re not in connection with the communities is absurd,” Bibles said. “When I was in the field in Susanville, (California) I was president of the school board.”

The past two months at DOI have shown that the Trump administration will force the reorganization through, without regard for widespread staff disillusionment, open hostility from retired career servants like Bibles and a bipartisan sense of unease in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Furthermore, DOI Secretary David Bernhardt on Sept. 30 reappointed controversial interim BLM Director William Perry Pendley. E&E News reported growing speculation that Trump will put Pendley up for Senate confirmation. 

If Pendley were confirmed, it would probably make him the first BLM director who is hostile to the existence of public lands. 

Pendley is held in low regard by both former and current agency staff. Leaked audio from an agency staff meeting last month offered a picture of the general atmosphere at the agency regarding the move from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colo. 

His renewed term expires Jan. 1, 2020. 

Zielinski said the changes to the agency by DOI are an obvious telegraph of what the Trump administration is trying to do.

“Number one: BLM has had no director since Trump took office. Number two: We’re doing a reorganization. Number three: We’ve got Pendley as the acting director. There’s more going on here,” she said. 

“You’re kind of gutting the agency. You’re dismantling it. How can an assistant director for land and minerals do their job when part of their staff will be in New Mexico and another part in Idaho and another part in Alaska? You can’t. It ain’t happening.”

All three former Arizona state directors who spoke to the Mirror said they were against the reorganization. And each of them independently said the main reason they are opposed is that the BLM’s current structure is not only satisfactory, but is actually uniquely effective.

Zielinski, who started with the BLM in 1977 and retired as state director of Arizona in 2009, said she witnessed the agency transform into an efficient multiple-use land management agency over the course of her career. 

“It was very much an old cowboy and forestry outfit,” she said. “Before, they used to say ‘Bureau of Livestock and Mining.’ It changed dramatically from that. Different people came in with different experience. The recreation part of it really started popping, and there was also more interest in the cultural resources.”

Denise Meridith was state director in Arizona from 1995 to 2002. Before that, she was both the first woman and first person of color to become deputy director of operations in Washington when she took the agency’s second-in-command in 1993. Meridith’s approach to managing the state office was strongly oriented toward public-private partnerships. 

“I’m independent. I’m not very fond of either party. Throughout my career, the main thing I was trying to do was what I call ‘sane stewardship.’ My goal was always to balance environmental concerns and economic development,” she told the Mirror.

Meridith said her accomplishments during her tenure as state director were helping establish Tempe Town Lake, serving on the state’s first Sports and Tourism Authority and designating four national monuments. 

Business-oriented as she is, Meridith said the planned reorganization is tampering with what she described as one of the few agencies that reliably generates revenue for the government. In other words, she said, the reorganization is bad business. 

“Reorganizations are super expensive. It’s not something you want to do unless you have to do it,” she said. “There’s not a lot of sense to it and whole lot of downsides to it.”

Meanwhile, the BLM generated $360 million in revenue for the federal government from oil and gas lease sales in 2017 alone. DOI reported that, in 2016, activity on public lands managed by the BLM contributed $88 billion to the U.S. economy. All this from an agency with an annual operating budget of roughly $1 billion.

Bibles and Zielinski are not watching the agency go quietly. Both serve on the board of the Public Lands Foundation, a volunteer-based nonprofit that lobbies for proper stewardship of the nation’s public land. Virtually everyone involved with the Foundation is a former or retired BLM employee. 

Bibles still makes frequent trips to Washington, D.C., from his home in Texas on business related to public lands. And despite his age, he makes full use of his right to public lands as an American. Just a week before speaking with the Mirror, Bibles was hiking in the Grand Canyon. He talked cheerfully about his trips to Havasupai Falls, which reminded him of the nearby Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.

“That provided a place to start the California condors,” he said. The condor was the largest North American land bird before going extinct in the wild. The species was reintroduced to Vermillion Cliffs in 1996. 

“And that’s where they still are,” Bibles said with an air of pride, “on BLM land.”

***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Denise Meridith’s name.

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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.