BLM describes vision for "Treasured Landscapes"

Sep 10, 2010

In response to the demands by the Congressional Western Caucus, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in August released the remaining 14 pages of a controversial document that recommends a new vision for the management of BLM lands under the Department of Interior’s "Treasured Landscapes" initiative. Seven pages of the 21-page document were leaked in February. These leaked pages, which recommended up to13 million acres of BLM-managed lands for potential designation as national monuments, sent shockwaves through the western grazing industry amid fears that the present administration was positioning to undertake a major reclassification of federal lands by presidential proclamation, along the lines taken by Clinton during his last days in office.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-UT, chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-MT, have been among the most persistent in their demands that, in the interest of transparency, the entire Treasured Landscapes document be released along with all supporting documents and emails which may give insight into the BLM’s agenda. Although the Department of Interior (DOI) maintains that the Treasured Landscapes document only represents "brainstorming," and not any significant shift in policy, BLM has only released a portion of the relevant background documents, and has persisted in withholding some 2,000 others, despite official request. Meanwhile, the complete paper, marked "not for release," has now been widely circulated on the internet and is posted on the Public Lands Council website, as well as on the websites of Bishop and Rehberg.

The internal discussion paper, titled "Treasured Landscapes: Our Vision, Our Values," has given the public an unintended glimpse into the possible future of public lands management. In it, BLM explains how it sees itself fitting into the DOI’s "Treasured Landscapes" philosophy, which emphasizes ecological, cultural, and historic values in the management of public lands.

According to the "Visions and Values" document, over half of the 264 million acres presently under BLM management are deserving of some special designation as a treasured landscape. Because of the aesthetic and ecologic values of these lands, the document states, they warrant special protection and recognition. To this end, BLM proposes three actions that will advance their goal of managing BLM lands within the Treasured Landscapes philosophy: designating existing BLM lands "under the appropriately protective management regime;" consolidating BLM lands through acquisition and divestment; and managing lands at ecosystem scale.

It is the first of these proposed actions which has caused the greatest alarm to ranchers and other natural resource users, as special designations such as national monuments and preserves have often been accompanied by restrictions on, or elimination of, grazing.

According to the document, "the BLM believes that lands especially deserving of protection should be placed in the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS); that the administration should consider designating significant and immediately threatened lands as national monuments; and the BLM’s land-use planning process should properly account for ecosystem service values and conservation values."

NLCS comprises the nation’s system of national monuments, wilderness and wilderness study areas, national conservation areas, wild and scenic rivers, and national scenic historic trails.

Although the BLM document acknowledges that a legislative process which allows for public input is preferable when designating monuments, it adds that, "Should the legislative process not prove fruitful ... BLM would recommend that the Administration consider using the Antiquities Act to designate new National Monuments by Presidential Proclamation."

The Antiquities Act, introduced by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, allows the president to create national monuments on federally-owned lands by executive order.

The document continues: "To achieve our Treasured Landscapes objectives, the BLM will need to enlist the aid of the administration and Congress to ensure that we possess both the legal tools and financial means to make our vision of integrated landscape-level management a reality."

In a statement, Rehberg voiced his concern with the proposal.

"While I’m glad the Department of Interior has finally released these pages, I can certainly understand why they wanted to keep them a secret. A single sentence acknowledging the benefit of public input won’t appease Montanans when the rest of the document lays out plans to circumvent that input if it doesn’t fall in line with the pre-constructed plans of unelected Washington bureaucrats. The new pages make a disturbing case for bypassing Congress with a unilateral presidential designation of National Monuments. This was the worst-case scenario, and it’s no longer hypothetical."

In a release from the Western Congressional Caucus, Bishop gave a similarly grim assessment of the document.

"These 14 pages are further evidence of this Administration’s efforts, under the guidance of [DOI] Secretary Salazar, to control western lands by unilaterally locking them up without input from local residents and stakeholders nor the approval of Congress. Their plotting behind closed doors is disingenuous at best and flies in the face of this Administration’s so-called ‘transparency’," Bishop stated. "Thousands of westerners whose livelihoods depend upon access to our public lands stand to be affected by these decisions and yet this document blatantly goes out of its way to exclude their input or participation. If there was any question about whether or not this Administration has declared a war on the West, these new documents are evidence enough."

DOI and BLM have remained firm in maintaining that the Treasured Landscapes document does not represent a wholesale departure from previous public lands management. They claim that the proposals in the document represent no more than brainstorming about a possible future direction, and that public input remains a key element in public lands policy.

A news release from DOI stated, "Secretary Salazar believes it is important that the Department of the Interior serve as wise stewards of the places that matter most to Americans. For that reason, he has asked DOI’s bureaus to think about what areas might be worth considering for further review for possible special management or Congressional designation. The preliminary internal discussion draft reflects some brainstorming discussions within BLM, but no decisions have been made about which areas, if any, might merit more serious review and consideration. Secretary Salazar believes new designations and conservation initiatives work best when they build on local efforts to better manage places that are important to nearby communities."

According to a report from the Great Falls Tribune, BLM Director Robert Abbey confirmed that he prepared the Treasured Landscapes document along with BLM staffers last summer upon Salazar’s request.

Abbey explained, "When I became the director of the Bureau of Land Management, the secretary asked me to put together a vision that I would have for the public lands that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. I put together what I believed to be some specific directions where I think the public lands can be recognized for the values that they really hold."
Abbey added that the resulting Treasured Landscapes document was never intended to be a publicly circulated document.

"A lot of times, people look at these public lands and they think they’re being managed for just grazing or mining or oil and gas development. What I wanted to demonstrate was that, while we value all these uses, and they’re important to the nation’s economy, there are other values on the public lands that we also manage these lands for," Abbey said. "Part of that vision we put together included a wide array of those values and how we could possibly manage for those values and multiple uses in the future."

Abbey said the content of the document has been taken out of context, and its importance "has been blown way out of proportion for what the document was intended to do."

"We do not have a strategy in place to implement any of the ideas that were generated through our own vision document," Abbey said. "What seems to have gotten lost in all the rhetoric and criticism is the fact that I also said before any designation of a national monument, that we would need to go out and assess the support we might have from Congress and certainly members of the public." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent