Not too long ago, the mission of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency which administers the public lands, was to dispose of these lands. While getting rid of the "lands that nobody wanted," the BLM emphasized consumptive uses - grazing, mining, and logging - of public grass, minerals and trees. The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act was the principal legislation guiding BLM's management of public lands.
Twenty-five years ago on October 21, 1976, Congress passed and President Gerald Ford signed the Federal Land P olicy and Management Act, generally referred to as "FLIP-MA. " This controversial legislation closed the last of the Western frontier by changing BLM's mission from public land disposal to retention. The BLM "organic act" endorsed the principles of multiple use and sustained yield and required comprehensive resource management plans. In an attempt to end essentially unregulated grazing and development impacts on wildlife habitat, riparian areas, and cultural resources, the new law required good management and protection of all values found on public lands. New programs were established - designating Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, making payments to counties in lieu of taxes, recording mining claims, designating and protecting wilderness study areas, establishing the Kings Range and Desert National Conservation Areas, and sunsetting the old Grazing District Advisory Boards.
Much has been accomplished over the last 25 years as BLM implemented its new mission, yet the BLM report card is mixed. BLM has clearly followed its legal mandate for multiple uses of public lands, although the debate continues over whether Congress intended for every use to occur on every acre of public lands. The vast majority of public lands have been retained in public ownership, despite periodic attacks by Congress and various Sagebrush Rebels. Some lands, usually around land-locked Western towns and cities, have been privatized and resulting public revenues have been used to acquire environmentally sensitive lands such as at Lake Tahoe.
BLM has established many Areas of Critical Environmental Concern on public lands, yet special protection and management plans are rarely funded. Funding many essential public services from roads to schools to hospitals, counties receive millions of dollars annually from the BLM and other federal agencies in lieu of taxes which would be required if the lands were private. All mining claims have been recorded, but mining is still managed under the 1872 Mining Act so that even mining with significant negative environmental impacts must be allowed by the BLM. BLM's west-wide review of all public lands for their wilderness values has begun to result in formal Congressional designation of BLM wilderness areas. Many very popular National Conservation Areas have been established on public lands.
BLM grades for successfully implementing FLPMA requirements for 'sustained yield' management are much lower, with many species of plants and animals being listed under the Endangerered Species Act as endangered, threatened, or candidate. Sage Grouse population declines of over 80% reflect the loss and degradation of critical sagebrush habitat from overgrazing, no-burn fire policies, range 'improvements' for livestock grazing, roads and powerlines in the wrong places, the invasion of noxious weeds, and recently extensive habitat lost in the fire-cheatgrass cycle. Recently, BLM adopted grazing standards and guidelines for healthy rangelands, but to date, significant grazing reform on public lands has not occurred.
It will take more than a crystal ball to see what is
in store for BLM-administered public lands in the next 25 years.
Conservation efforts by Sierra Club volunteers and others could have
significant impacts as changing administations push for either more
resource production or
more resource protection. Which future do you want for the public lands?
- Either attacks on the public status of public lands will succeed and millions of acres will be transferred to private ownership
- Or these attacks will fail and most public lands will remain in public hands
- Either public land management will continue to degrade ecosystem health resulting in the listing of dozens more plants and animals
- Or due to legal mandates of the Endangered Species Act, BLM management will be more focused on restoration and rehabilitation of entire ecosystems, especially in sagebrush country which provides critical habitat for over two dozen species of animals
- Either the 1872 Mining Act requirements for no charge for mineral extraction or control of mining
- Or the mining law will be updated at last charging royalties for public owned minerals and providing BLM discretion over when, where, and how mining is conducted on public lands
- Either environmentally and economically unsound grazing will continue,
- Or grazing will not occur on every acre of public lands and permit buyout or other programs will be developed to eliminate grazing or change grazing practices to support healthy ecosystems
- Either wilderness protection will fail by Congressional or BLM actions
- Or many more wilderness areas, national conservation areas and national monuments will be designated as Congress responds to growing public support for protection of invaluable public lands and waters and increasing demand for high quality recreation on public lands
The next 25 years for the public lands will be determined by how much the public cares about these and other issues. Sierra Club members are invited to become directly involved in the Toiyabe Chapter's work on public lands issues including Sage Grouse conservation, Walker Lake, mining reform, ecosystem restoration, wilderness or other public lands issues. Please contact Rose Strickland, Public Lands Committee at (775) 329-6118 for more information.