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Report says Bureau of Land Management mismanaged during Trump presidency

Published March 8, 2021
BLM employees speak out in an anonymous survey conducted by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

SILVER SPRING, Md. (BRAIN) — The Bureau of Land Management was plagued by increasing extremism, retaliation and employee intimidation, and political influence during the Trump Administration, according to a Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility anonymous survey of current and former employees.

The report released March 1 involved a series of in-depth phone interviews in January and February with 23 current and former bureau employees. They were from nine states, including headquarters, state offices, and field offices. The survey's purpose is to help the Biden Administration address conservation and climate change objectives.

The BLM is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, managing more than 247 million acres. It encompasses some of the country's most popular mountain bike destinations, including Moab, Utah, and Fruita, Colorado. Last fall, the Department of Interior approved its policy proposal for land managers to regulate e-bikes the same as traditional bikes on non-motorized lands, which includes the BLM.

Other governance issues included staff shortages, turnover and movement, disparate enforcement of the law, lack of transparency, and the dwindling use of science.

Of the employees surveyed, PEER said three-quarters do not believe that the condition of land resources is improving. They also don't believe the BLM has the staffing or resources to be successful; can meaningfully integrate climate change into resource planning or prioritize resource protection; can rely on the best available science to make decisions; or is headed in the right direction.

A Bureau of Land Management spokesman told BRAIN late Friday, “The BLM is committed to an inclusive and engaging workplace that fosters a safe, open, welcoming and productive work environment for all employees. The BLM will continue to engage our staff and assess reports/surveys in order to develop appropriate strategies to strengthen the agency and our workforce.”

PEER wrote that although the survey is a small sample size, "it's critical to listen to the voices and experiences of those who have worked at the BLM." PEER has conducted many anonymous mailed surveys previously, but the BLM survey was done by phone by Rocky Mountain PEER Director Chandra Rosenthal due to many current employees working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each employee and past employee also was emailed the survey.

"We wanted to cover the full range of work experiences, so I tried to include someone from most of the states, a range of field offices and people from headquarters," Rosenthal told BRAIN on Friday. "I spoke with people in a bunch of different capacities — specialists like biologists, interpretive specialists ... as well as management."

Increasing extremism

The pardoning of two ranchers in 2018 after their conviction of arson on Oregon federal lands legitimized anti-government extremists, according to many surveyed BLM employees. In 2018, then President Donald Trump pardoned Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond of their conviction that prompted Ammon Bundy to lead an armed standoff in 2016 on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Princeton, Oregon, in protest. The pardon, many employees said, "worsened and legitimized what many employees call the 'Bundy problem.'"

Furthermore, along with the Department of Interior and White House, survey respondents said the BLM has been slow, and some say failed, to discipline or reign in anti-government extremists. Some employees believe lawlessness increased over the years and that the lack of agency action emboldens local ranchers to similarly graze land and trespass cattle without permits or fees.

"The Bundy problem is symbolic of the disregard for the rule of law," said one employee.

"Divisive" diversity training

Also according to the survey, President Trump directed federal agencies to stop "divisive" diversity training. "When the agency did away with the diversity training, we felt an increase in discrimination of age and gender," said one employee.

President Joe Biden has since rescinded that order.

"What was surprising was hearing how many different, seemingly small structural changes had great impacts on the ability of employees to do their jobs," Rosenthal said Friday. "For example, we knew that diversity training had been eliminated, but I heard from two different women that they thought that specific change had emboldened staff to be more disrespectful to the women in the office.

"Another surprise to me was how meaningful the interview itself seemed to be for many of the employees. By that, I mean the employees have expertise from years of experience, moving between field offices, or even working at different agencies, and yet, they do not have the opportunity to comment on the big-picture issues and share their wisdom. By reaching out personally they could share and be heard by the agency and public." 

Retaliation and employee intimidation

Employees said as the BLM became more politicized they suffered retaliation, bullying and intimidation for employing science and environmental procedures for projects and decisions. Many were taken off projects if their conclusions didn't match project goals. "Biologists get all the heat in the office because they are reviewing proposals that management has already decided on — so all biologist feedback is considered negative," one employee told PEER. "They can shop biologists, use one in another office, to sign off on the proposal."

Intimidation — or the "cowboy culture of social control," as one employee put it — came from pressure to allow ranchers to do whatever they have been doing. Employees did not get support for speaking out from their supervisors. "They don't let me do my job. It is a struggle. I love my home and community and don't want to leave," an employee said.

Political influence

Regardless of managers' goals, oil and gas was the BLM's priority, according to the survey. Oil and gas employees were considered the most important staffers because of the financial stake with the Trump Administration pushing oil and gas development.

According to the survey report, "One Utah employee noted that while BLM has traditionally been run at the field level, which helps to depoliticize the agency, management has gradually become more subject to state directors and now primarily to headquarters — to the point, some say, where all decisions are run through headquarters, 'all the way down to grazing in the field. And a lot of that is done on the phone because they don't want to have a paper record of the decision-making process.'"

In February 2020, the BLM announced that two parcels of land, one of which includes part of Moab's famous Slickrock Trail, would not be in an upcoming oil and gas lease sale. The year before, a company in the oil and gas industry filed an expression of interest in leasing the BLM-managed parcels for underground oil and gas extraction. The mountain bike industry, local and state elected officials —  including Utah's Gov. Gary Herbert — and others opposed the plan

Staff shortages

In 2019, the BLM headquarters moved from Washington, D.C., and split agency management between Grand Junction, Colorado, Reno, Salt Lake City, and in other locations throughout the country. Because of this, the agency had only 41 of 328 employees relocating, with the rest either retiring or seeking other employment.

"When we really dug into the numbers, I am amazed by how much the agency can do with so few employees," Rosenthal said Friday. "It is surprising that the agency hasn't snapped under the pressure. Employment numbers in the agency are dropping despite the increase use of public lands. Visitation numbers are up, recreation numbers are up, oil and gas leasing was on hyper drive during the Trump administration, alternative energy applications continue to increase, and there are the traditional uses of the land like grazing. Despite an expanding workload, BLM staff levels have continued to shrink. 

"In short, BLM is now operating with a skeleton crew. Given its current staffing, BLM may not be capable of meeting new Biden mandates to improve the quality of scientific analysis supporting its decisions."  


The current and former BLM employees made several recommendations about what to do to fix what's wrong and accomplish the Biden Administration's climate change and conservation issue mandates.

  • Rebuild employee trust and morale.
  • Improve staffing.
  • Embrace stakeholder partnerships.
  • Use science-based decision making
  • Improve management.
  • Engage the public.

As currently managed, PEER concludes, the BLM "is not meaningfully equipped to carry out (the Biden Administration) agenda. However, solutions exist for the new administration to solve the agency's underlying issues."

Rosenthal said Friday that the new BLM director Biden selects for confirmation will be a critical decision moving forward. She also said the BLM will benefit financially from The Great American Outdoors Act, which President Trump did sign into law in August, but the agency "lacks a strategic plan for the internal investments that will be needed to enable the agency to move forward."

PEER also is hoping to conduct a National Park Service employee survey. Rosenthal said traditionally PEER has conducted large-scale mail surveys for employees to retain anonymity, but because of the success of the more personal BLM project, she wants to continue phone interviews, too. 

"The discussions provide so much context to the survey — really, an inside view of the agency — a peek into the sausage factory," she said.

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