Viewpoint: Let Us Stop Breaking the Land

Stan Olmstead
Stan Olmstead surveys a landscape near Vernal, Utah. (Photo courtesy Stan Olmstead)


By Stan Olmstead, Natural Resource Specialist, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, retired

VERNAL, Utah, December 3, 2012 (ENS) – Never looking through rose colored glasses it is obvious that we have monumental environmental concerns both in the nation and on the planet and are in need of serious solutions.

The U.S. government has all the abilities to perform state-of-the-arts environmental management and yet we continue to fail.

The land management agencies have hard-working people and they put in sincere time to perform their work. However if the Vernal Field Office is representative, there is cause for concern in the implementation of the Bureau of Land Management’s mission.

Stan Olmstead
Stan Olmstead surveys a landscape near Vernal, Utah. (Photo courtesy Stan Olmstead)

The mission of the BLM is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. As civil servants we are obligated to all Americans to perform the BLM mission. Yet our elected, appointed and agency administrators ask us to focus on commodities and economics as opposed to environmental health. Commodities and economic gains are easier to measure.

The Vernal Office has placed priority on the exploitation of public land for commodities. This effort is because of a focus on development of energy, due to a fossil fuel fixation, politics, Energy Policy Act (2005), Vernal Field Office Resource Management Plan (2008), and office managers who do not understand their purpose.

A quarter of the employees of the Vernal Office have a personal interest, academic knowledge, and intent to serve the American public in the performance of the mission. The mission and natural resource knowledge is their prime reason for working with the Bureau. The intent of these natural resource professionals is to wisely manage habitat and fauna of public land for our citizens.

U.S. history has shown repeated failure in the care of the natural world. We have placed the exploitation of natural resources and profits from these resources ahead of wisdom. In the past we mined, logged, grazed and exploited the natural world.

Public pressure on our political officials to reverse this attitude and stop deterioration of natural systems was necessary and resulted in excellent environmental laws.

Yet today the United States has lost numerous species, but we do not act with the best interest of other species and their ethical protection in mind.

At the Vernal Office little concern has been shown to care for sensitive species – mountain plover, sage grouse, hookless cactus. We promote energy development without stop and continue to measure natural resources by dollar value.

We work with our elected officials but we work for our citizens. Outside influences that lead us away from our required service to the American citizen and the BLM mission, should be repelled by the servant. Our service to the American people is to fulfill the mission through science, law, regulations and “teamwork.”

Our fellow civil servants that administer the Bureau of Land Management should insist that we work together in a common goal to fulfill the intent of the mission. Yet the Vernal Office does not work together as a professional team. Instead the office works as fragmented groups, individually following bureaucratic requirements catering to the exploiter and political antagonist.

There is little thought for the future by those in charge of real land health.

Health and diversity of public lands are based on natural entities. They do not include oil wells, livestock, crested wheatgrass nor guzzlers. These are developments and tools to exploit and have nothing to do with health and diversity. Productivity is not synonymous with commodities.

Protection of healthy soils, vegetation, clean air and water and a natural fauna are the true products, which we should diligently promote before commodity extraction.

Science teaches us to not act until we know that harm will not occur to the natural system, whereas development asks for proof of damage to the natural system before we restrict.

The natural environment and subsequently the human environment will be injured seriously if balance is not restored. U.S. federal land management agencies have it in their power to be the best land stewards anywhere in the world. We fail not in ability but in our attitude, a lack of understanding, lack of futuristic thinking and our implementation. Our actions are based on outside forces inconsistent with the intended mission and wisdom.

The BLM employee who did not study for a career in natural science frequently works for the Bureau for different reasons than the natural resource professional, and it appears from experience that those who work for these different reasons are unable to visualize the BLM’s intended mission.

The BLM team must have an understanding of environmental health, diversity and the true customer before we can fulfill our service. Without a personal interest in the health of the land it is difficult to implement a professional understanding.

If, as some have said incorrectly, that “their job is to promote oil and gas” they fail in the mission and service to the people.

American ecologist and author Aldo Leopold had four requisites for land health:
1. Cease throwing away its parts
2. Handle it gently
3. Recognize that its importance transcends economics
4. Don’t let too many people tinker with it.

However, Vernal has lost the only population of mountain plover in the state of Utah, while at the same time the species is in decline throughout its range, contrary to science, ethics, and policy (BLM Manual 6480 – Special Status Species Management). Little effort was made to prevent this loss, and it is 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. Notable are: Seep Ridge #1; Lease #U-6616 and Seep Ridge #3; Lease #U-10178-A. Why is it that after more than 20 years of non-production these two wells remain idle and un-reclaimed? Federal regulation for well abandonment (Title 43 CFR 3162.3-4) requires abandonment procedures.

Land reclamation after use still appears difficult to perform. What’s the problem? The user wishes to profit from the land and the land is owned by the citizens. The BLM should insist that the user fulfill the reclamation requirement before permitting additional use. Our only task is to identify need and confirm success.

We have grazing allotments, allotments have specified Animal Unit Months, AUMs, and grazing occurs. Yet we disturb large percentages of our allotments located in oil and gas fields while AUMs remain the same. If you lose 30 percent of the forage in a specific allotment, it is logical to reduce the AUMs by 30 percent.

In the Vernal Field Office we have shown no concern for the cumulative impact of the developed area and provide little quantitative analysis in National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, documents.

We fragment habitat extensively in energy areas, resulting in ecosystem damage not unlike that which occurred from overgrazing and other historic land exploitation. It took decades for government to stop overgrazing and move toward land health. Today scars remain from time before the Taylor Grazing Act.

We have watched as direct and indirect impacts have killed individuals of a federally listed plant species with only a token effort to prevent future actions and not a single apology for our failure.

Analysis of water depletion associated with endangered fish of the Colorado River system is accomplished through a series of documented explanations without any attempt to monitor the quantity of depletion. This is inconsistent with critical habitat requirements established for the species.

The air within the Uintah Basin continues to be fouled in our effort to maximize energy production and economic gain. Air quality causes respiratory ailments, traffic within the community is industrial and large sums of money leave the community to outside corporations.

Climate change receives but token language in our NEPA documents.

Socio-economics are measured by dollar values gained without analysis showing measurement of “degradation/benefit” to the community.

A myriad of other community-related issues are in need of detailed analysis.

American geologist John Mayers said, “Our Quest is to see that we are connected to all things, that there is no separation, only in the mind.”

We need to alter our bureaucratic method of operation. We need to focus on our mission and team implementation as professional civil servants. We need to work together as a unified team of professionals to implement the science, law, and regulations for service to the American people. We need to discontinue our practice of placing our budget on projects that in truth are developments in disguise but are termed mitigation.

We should utilize the budget for monitoring and oversight. With the use of public land comes the burden of the user to minimize injury to the land and restore it to its natural state.

Without serious fulfillment of the BLM mission we continue to harm public land as it has been harmed so frequently in the past.

Let us be honest about what is happening. It is easier to break something than to fix it, so let us stop breaking the land.

{Stan Olmstead was a natural resources specialist with the Bureau of Land Management for 20 years from 1992, responsible for water quality, riparian, floodplain and rangeland management, and species monitoring for Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements. He also was responsible for oil and gas inspections, leasing abandonment, compliance and permitting. Since his retirement at the end of September, Olmstead has become an environmental writer and advocate.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.

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