Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Farewell message that land agency BLM has lost its way

Feds go full-drill, shorting conservation duties.

VERNAL, Utah — The U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management has lost sight of its mission in a quest to maximize fossil energy and other resource exploitation on public wild lands, according to the retirement message sent by a career natural resource specialist and posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The sobering message depicts cascading natural system failures due to unchecked oil and gas drilling and related cumulative damage to public lands, air and waters.

Stan Olmstead started his career in natural resource management inside public agencies 44 years ago, with stints in the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. For the past 20 years he has been a Natural Resource Specialist and an Environmental Scientist in BLM’s Vernal Field Office in eastern Utah, near the Colorado border. On September 28th, his final day of federal service, he sent a memo entitled “Last Formal Comment” to all BLM employees throughout Utah.

In this memo, he decried a singular “focus on commodities and economics as opposed to environmental health.” He elaborated by writing “At the Vernal Office little concern has been shown to care for sensitive species … We promote energy development without stop and continue to measure natural resources by dollar value…” Olmstead offered these pointed examples:
  • BLM fails to protect sensitive wildlife and as a result “lost the mountain plover; the only known population in Utah… Little effort to prevent this loss was implemented.” He called this dereliction “a serious mission departure.”
  • “Plugging and abandonment of well sites have not been a priority. Numerous oil & gas wells have not produced for more than 15 years and yet these sites remain un-reclaimed.”
  • Cumulative impacts from oil and gas drilling. For example, “we disturb large percentages of our [grazing] allotments located in oil & gas fields and AUMs [Animal Unit Months] remain the same. If you lose 30% of the forage in a specific allotment it is logical to reduce the AUMs by 30%.”
“Stan is telling us that BLM has lost its way. BLM is supposed to be a ‘multiple-use agency’ but managers have misplaced the ‘multiple’ as they go full-drill and shortchange conservation,” stated Southwest PEER Director Daniel Patterson, an Ecologist in Tucson also formerly with BLM, noting that the BLM Director position is currently vacant. “BLM needs a visionary new leader who will keep public lands development at sustainable levels and understands you can’t have every use on every acre.”

Olmstead also cited poor land reclamation, unmonitored water depletion for endangered fish of the Colorado River watershed, and mounting air pollution, all due to divergence from BLM’s mission “to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” He concluded with this call to colleagues:

“We need to alter our bureaucratic method of operation …Be honest about what is happening.”

All links

High Country News coverage

and more coverage from Greenwire:

INTERIOR: Veteran BLM official blasts agency for valuing drilling over conservation

Emily Yehle, E&E reporter

Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management has lost sight of its mission in the political rush to use public lands for energy development, according to an experienced agency official.

Stan Olmstead retired last month after 20 years at BLM, most recently as a natural resource specialist and environmental scientist in the Vernal Field Office in eastern Utah. In his last few minutes on the clock, he decided to send a three-page memo to his colleagues outlining what he saw as the agency's focus on economics at the expense of natural resources.

He described an office that promotes energy development and measures natural resources "by dollar value," leading to the neglect of sensitive species and the land's health. As examples, he pointed to the loss of the mountain plover in Utah and the delay in reclaiming unused oil and gas wells.

"Without serious fulfillment of the mission we continue to harm public land as it has been harmed so frequently in our historic past," Olmstead wrote. "Be honest about what is happening. It is easier to break something than to fix it, so let us stop breaking the land."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released Olmstead's memo today, calling for a "visionary new leader" at BLM who will steer the agency away from what it sees as a focus on oil drilling. Bob Abbey retired in May as BLM director; since then, Deputy Director Mike Pool has served as acting director.

A BLM spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

Abbey had left BLM in 2005, citing the agency's singular focus on oil and gas drilling. He came back in 2009 as director and engineered a sweeping overhaul of oil and gas leasing on federal lands, promoting an expansion of renewable energy and a renewed focus on conservation.

But Olmstead depicts an agency that is still grappling with balancing its mission to protect public lands while reaching administrative goals to expand energy production. In an interview today, he pointed to a recent New York Times article that describes the close relationship between drillers and BLM officials in Utah.

Olmstead said his memo was "one last attempt to try to draw attention to the other values we have." His pleas -- and those of other natural resource employees -- while within the agency were mostly ignored, he said; protection of the health and diversity of public lands was simply not a priority."I think my main motive is to communicate," he said, adding that he has a meeting later this month with BLM Utah Director Juan Palma. "I have been somewhat quiet during my employment, and now that I'm in retirement I plan to speak out."

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