Bureau of Land Management employees say that after four years of abuse, the agency needs to be rebuilt before it can carry out its mission of sustainable multiple-use. In the meantime, the resource management plans for the Missoula and Lewistown BLM offices also need major changes.

With President Joe Biden relieving agencies of Trump leadership, federal employees are beginning to reveal how detrimental Trump policies were for public land management. Some say they made a tough job even tougher in regions of the West where extremism prevails.

On Monday, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released the results of an employee survey that shows the past four years of large policy changes has left the Bureau of Land Management almost unable to do its job. Interviews of 23 BLM employees in nine states were conducted in January and February.

More than 80% felt the agency is headed in the wrong direction because it doesn’t prioritize resource protection and doesn’t rely on science to make decisions or consider the effects of climate change. Additionally, a vast majority felt the agency no longer has the staff or resources to carry out its multiple-use mandate.

“Our survey shows that the BLM has become more plagued by staff shortages and high turnover,” said Chandra Rosenthal, PEER Rocky Mountain Field Office counsel. “There are partisan decision makers in the highest ranks and the lowest. Their agendas are often contrary to the BLM mission of sustaining the health and diversity of public lands.”

The BLM oversees 248 million acres, but current staffing is so low that there’s only one employee for every 31,500 acres. For comparison, the U.S. Forest Service has a ratio of one employee for every 8,300 acres, and even that is impractical.

When Acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley moved the BLM headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colo., and decentralized management to other western offices in 2019, only 41 of 328 employees moved west to stay in their positions.

That’s why Mary Jo Rugwell, former Wyoming BLM state director, said the BLM’s national office should return to D.C. and rules need to be put in place to protect apolitical career employees from being shuffled to different departments or organizations in order to put cronies in their place.

“I believe (employee moves) were done as a shot across the bow, if you will, to make sure that top leadership was more concerned about whether they’d have a job tomorrow than possibly making the best decision for their unit. I think that’s not a good thing to do to people,” Rugwell said. “The move to Grand Junction was a thinly-veiled effort to gut the organization.”

It’s not just the loss of people that’s a problem; it’s the resulting brain-drain, according to the PEER report.

When highly educated professionals resign from more remote offices, they are being replaced by young, local people with associate degrees who tend to defer to local ranchers and politicians, particularly in Nevada and Arizona. One employee said some managers were hiring people with military backgrounds but no natural resource training. As a result, science plays a limited role if any in their decisions.

In addition, Pendley required that certain decisions be made at the headquarters rather than the local level.

Former BLM Planning and Environment coordinator Richard Spotts said he resigned in 2017 because of repressive BLM management in Arizona.

“I learned during my 15 years at BLM that the dominant management culture plays a enormous role in whether or how various laws and scientific data are used in making decisions,” Spotts said. “Based on my experience in a pretty rural office, the dominant management culture was corrupt, regressive, biased and secretive. And that included the eight years of the Obama administration.”

Spotts warned that such a culture doesn’t bother to enforce environmental laws. For that reason, the Cliven Bundy’s of the world keep breaking the law because they never have to answer to it.

He encouraged the Biden administration to remove all Trump appointees, require independent audits of BLM decisions and hold managers accountable for maintaining conservation values.

The employees PEER surveyed said the BLM needs to create jobs. Hire at least 5,000 employees into mid-level positions, including rangers to interact with the public and manage recreation. Also, a conservation mandate should come from the top down.

Employees told Rosenthal that Trump administration changes to the public process under the National Environmental Policy Act were probably the most damaging. The changes were made to give extractive industry projects the upper hand.

Employees pointed to the shortened timelines of public notice and comment periods on projects, not addressing public comment, and the increasing number of projects that were pushed through without public input through the use of “categorical exclusions.” All these reduced the public’s ability to have a say.

Similar efforts to disenfranchise the public played out during the development of a number of BLM resource management plans, particularly those of the Missoula and Lewistown offices, which ignored public input and their own recommendations from five years before. Resource management plans are intended to guide at least two decades of decisions, and the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trust analyzed several plans published between May 2019 and early 2020, said Laurel Williams, Pew Public Lands and Rivers Conservation Officer.

“These plans would have failed to conserve land that the BLM’s own research deemed worthy of protection. The plans would have removed decade’s-old safeguards and left only a fraction of the areas preserve while opening vast swaths to energy and mineral development,” Williams said.

That’s not news to the Montana Wilderness Association and several hunting groups such as the Montana Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, which opposed both plans throughout the hurried public process.

The Lewistown plan was particularly destructive, opening up 95% of its 650,000 acres to oil and gas exploration. The Missoula plan made its objective to “produce the greatest quantities of forest products from vegetation restoration activities” and would have eliminated all wilderness study areas and all but one Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

This was common to all the management plans – 94% of areas of critical environmental concern would have been eliminated, Williams said.  To avoid such threats in the future, the BLM should develop minimum management standards to protect areas of critical environmental concern.

“There are still a number of resource management plans are ongoing and that were not finalized. They provide an opportunity to employ conservation,” Williams said. “In nearly all these ongoing resource management plans, there is adequate analysis within the range of alternatives for the new administration to bring together a more balanced final plan.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.