Read the fine print

Dec 3, 2010

What do cell phone promotions, credit card solicitations, and the administration’s sales patter about its "new approach" to public lands management all have in common?

Each one of them is tricked out with feel-good language to conceal the facts buried in that fine print they’d rather you didn’t read.

Three weeks ago, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar was enthusiastically pitching the National Landscape Conservation System, or "NLCS," which he had just elevated to the status of a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) directorate. In his speech, Salazar painted a glowing picture of the administration’s new "land management model." He emphasized that the creation of new NLCS designations like national monuments and wilderness will involve "engagement with local communities" and provide "[e]conomic benefits" to rural areas. And he promised "balance" in the approach by "maintaining economically productive uses" such as grazing on many NLCS lands.

Not a bad deal? Let the buyer beware. When you peel back this candy-coated rhetoric, a less friendly picture emerges. And when you combine that picture with the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) "Treasured Landscapes" management initiative, which recommends considering up to half the land under BLM management for NLCS or similar restrictive designations, the administration’s new NLCS-centered approach to public lands management amounts to a brazen bid to dismantle the multiple-use mission of the BLM.

Salazar’s Secretarial Order says "The BLM shall ensure that the components of the NLCS are managed to protect the values for which they were designated, including, where appropriate, prohibiting uses that are in conflict with those values."

To see what this means, consider that monuments, wilderness, and other NLCS lands are designated to protect cultural, recreational, and environmental values. What the above statement implies is that on NLCS lands, these values have priority over "traditional" uses such as forage utilization. Further, where there is "conflict," lower priority uses such as grazing can be prohibited. Given that anti-grazing groups have often convinced BLM that grazing conflicts with recreation and conservation, even where permittees are providing important benefits to the environment, it’s clear that eliminating grazing on NLCS lands would be a simple proposition.

But there’s more. The order continues: "If consistent with such protection, appropriate multiple uses may be allowed …"

Multiple uses may be allowed? Here, Salazar really tips his hand. What this indicates is that on NLCS lands, even when there is no perceived conflict with recreational and ecological values, grazing is still entirely discretionary. BLM "may" allow grazing, but it has no obligation to do so.

Now, put the pieces of the puzzle together. One: recreation and conservation values have priority on NLCS lands over grazing and other natural resource uses. Two: any perceived conflict between grazing and recreation or conservation values can result in prohibiting grazing. Three: even where there is no conflict, BLM still doesn’t need to allow grazing on NLCS lands anyway. In short, there is no substantive requirement that management of NLCS lands adhere to the core BLM principle of multiple use.

This fact, by itself, might not be threatening if we were looking at a few modest NLCS designations. Instead, we are looking down the barrel of DOI’s "Treasured Landscapes" initiative, which seeks to saddle millions of acres of productive BLM land with NLCS designations. With up to half of its holdings locked into such designations, BLM would become a conservation/recreation agency that manages a little grazing on the side. This is a complete distortion of BLM’s multiple-use mission.

Salazar’s cheery claim that grazing presently occurs on 99 percent of current NLCS lands is highly dubious, but is irrelevant in any case. The point is that whatever grazing does occur on NLCS lands is strictly discretionary. Permittees are only there provided they are not told to leave.

But BLM’s multiple-use mandate does not allow Salazar to play favorites. No matter how he sells the NLCS, he cannot change that fact.

And no matter how he sells it, I’m not buying. — ANDY RIEBER