About the BLM: the United States Bureau of Land Management-

By Dr. Ralph Maughan, Ph. D.

Most Americans don't know the details of the vast holding of public lands they own, or about the mangers of these lands.

Most obscure is the United States Bureau of Land Management, the "BLM." Ironically this agency manages more public lands than the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The BLM oversees about 270-million acres of land, almost all of it in the Western states.

The National Forests were mostly reserved from the general public domain between 1882 and 1907. The Forest Service was created to manage them.

After a large number of national parks and monuments had been created by the Congress or the President on an ad hoc basis, in 1916 the National Park Service was created to manage them in a systematic way.

Similarity the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which has gone through a number of incarnations) manages the vast National Wildlife Refuge System.

The Taylor Grazing Act-

Before 1934, however, the rest of the public lands -- the remaining "public domain" -- was essentially one big vacant lot --a "commons" managed by no one and abused by many.  These lands had been slated for disposal for over a hundred years, but the Homestead Act and many other land disposal laws couldn't get rid of all of these lands, generally thought of as worthless desert by many.  In fact they held countless, little known splendors.

Grazing abuse of the public domain was terrible. Bands of sheep, goats and cattle wandered the land year round looking for grass (year round unplanned livestock grazing is the worst kind of grazing). Many owners of the livestock were itinerants, having no ranch of their own.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a great drought also set in and caused a near collapse of the livestock industry in the West and horrible environmental degradation in the form of dust storms that blew away the exposed, overgrazed soil.

The Western livestock industry, reactionary from the start, nevertheless found a leader with a bit of vision in  Representative Edward Thomas Taylor of Colorado, himself a rancher. In 1934, he sponsored the Taylor Grazing Act, which in fact, if not by law, essentially abolished the public domain.

The Taylor Grazing Act required that all who grazed the public domain would now need grazing permits and a base property, meaning private land on which they could hold and feed their livestock part of the year. This eliminated the nomadic herds of livestock. The public domain was divided into "grazing districts."  The law gave leasing preference to landowners and homesteaders in or adjacent to the grazing district lands. Permits were issued for not more than 10 years. Permit holders were charged a nickel a month to graze a cow or 5 sheep. This period is called an AUM "animal unit month."  1945 map of the grazing districts.

The Division of Grazing, later renamed the U.S. Grazing Service, was created to manage the grazing permits as an agency almost totally dominated by ranching through the local "grazing advisory boards." These grazing advisory boards typically were populated by the biggest local ranchers with a few token small operators, perhaps for "window dressing."

Administration of the permits was very lax, and subsequent historians have often come to view the main effect of the Taylor Grazing Act to prop up the better off ranchers, mostly cattlemen who held base property, at the expense of the nomadic ranchers, mostly sheepmen.

Creation of the BLM-

In 1946 there was a great battle in Congress that destroyed the Grazing Service and lead to the creation of the BLM.

The low grazing fees had often raised the ire of fiscally prudent eastern members of Congress, but the powerful senators of the constitutionally overrepresented, low population, Western states always catered to the public lands cattle industry. In 1946 Eastern members of congress vowed that unless grazing fees were raised, they would defund the Grazing Service. Western senators, led by Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada, told the Service that if they raised fees they would be defunded. So they were defunded.

Lacking any money, President Truman used his authority to combine the Grazing Service with the General Land Office, and old line Department of Interior agency responsible for land sales and disposals and mineral, oil and gas, phosphate and other leases. The result was the Bureau of Land Management, a weak agency, with uncertain authority, and no real mission.

For the next 30 years the BLM's authority and mission was vague. It was certainly more than grazing and other leasing. These lands were becoming increasingly valuable. However, a welter of contradictory land laws made any coherent policy impossible, and the ranchers were hardly becoming any more progressive or willing to pay to graze the public's land.

The drive to become an agency with a mission-

Finally in 1964, the "Multiple Use Classification Act" was passed. It created a study to determine which of the BLM-managed public domain would be offered for disposal and which would be retained by the American people and managed for many uses (multiple use). 175 million acres were classified for retention.

In the meantime, however, Americans were discovering their public domain lands. Recreation had moved beyond the national parks and national forests. The stunning scenery of southern Utah's canyonlands and slickrock country and wide open spaces of Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, the California deserts, and Eastern Oregon had been discovered.

Some of the lands no one wanted, "worthless for anything but grazing." The Henry Mountains of SE Utah. Managed by the BLM. Copyright © Ralph Maughan


The new environmental movement was not about to let these lands slip into a private lands lockup with its "no  trespassing" signs.  As a result the very powerful Federal Land Policy and Management Act or FLPMA (flip ma) became law in 1976.  This gave the BLM a mission like the Forest Service to manage these land for multiple use (including wilderness preservation and recreation) and sustained yield. Thousands of old land laws were repealed. The new law legally abolished the public domain and said was now the policy of the Unites States to retain and manage all the public lands. The new Carter Administration set about creating a BLM with a professional staff not subservient to the livestock, mining, and oil industries. New Secretary of Interior, former Idaho governor Cecil Andrus, announced that BLM would no longer really mean the "Bureau of livestock and mining."

After FLPMA-

This was easier said than done. Within 2 years, the livestock industry, land speculators, and some reactionary Western State legislatures, led by Nevada, launched the Sagebrush Rebellion, demanding state ownership of the public lands. Few today think the Sagebrush Rebellion really wanted state ownership. Instead they wanted a return to the cozy system of grazing, exclusion of the public, and domination by rural extractive interests and county commissioners.

Under President Ronald Reagan, self-proclaimed sagebrush rebel, James Watt was made Secretary of Interior, and he proceeded to undue the BLM's growing professionalism and to try to make things the way they had been. Watt, unlike his protégé Gale Norton, was politically clumsy. He was fired by President Reagan after several years, and environmentalists and outdoor recreationists were on the offensive.

The first President Bush was somewhat more moderate than Reagan or his son George W., and professionalization of the BLM slowly returned and was accelerated under President Clinton, although Clinton's first BLM director Jim Baca was fired for being too much of a conservationist. During the Clinton administration a number of efforts by Republican Congress to reverse the trend toward public inclusion and professional management were beaten back,  and Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt slowly instituted new grazing regulations that required at least a small amount of responsible land management by grazing permittees. These regulations also created "resource advisory councils," RACs, that had public representation and numerous interests in addition to grazing.

President Bush and a return to the 1890s-

George W. Bush is a man ignorant of the West and its many controversies, having grown up in the East and in Texas where there is little public land. Not surprisingly he delegated almost all public land authority to a host of political appointees from oil, mining and livestock, including Gale Norton of Colorado, his Secretary of Interior. Norton was a one time brown libertarian (the libertarians are split into browns and greens) who got her legal start in James Watt's old anti-environment law firm -- the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

Unfortunately Norton is as clever in serving the oil companies and grazing interests as her former Mountain States boss James Watt was clumsy. Hardly a libertarian anymore in a truly big government, big corporation Administration, Norton affects the trappings of an environmentalist, always looking her outdoor best as she poses before America's scenic wonders.

Meanwhile the BLM-

Meanwhile the BLM has reverted becoming little more than an agency that hands out oil and gas leases. Grazing is regulated hardly at all. Anyone who cracks down on grazing abuse is soon fired. The BLM staff, except for leasing,  has been cut, and the remaining employees live in constant fear for their jobs being eliminated or outsourced.

I recently told the Pocatello area BLM area manager (regarding the horrible SE Idaho, Pleasantview grazing allotment) that things would have been in better condition if the Taylor Grazing Act has never been passed and the area still one big commons (vacant lot). At least they wouldn't have had the money to put in the water troughs that opened places like the dry Pleasantview Hills (see below) to totally abusive grazing.

BLM (public land) to the left of the fence in the Pleasantview Hills, SE Idaho.
BLM (public land) to the left of the fence in the Pleasantview Hills, SE Idaho.
Early September 2003. Photo copyright by Ralph Maughan