Introduction and History

Table of Contents

Introduction and Summary

Ed Abbey called it the "Bureau of Livestock and Mines." Less creative writers call it the "Bureau of Land Mismanagement." It sometimes calls itself "the nation's leading conservation agency." Whatever you call it, the Bureau of Land Management manages more land than any other entity in the United States.

If it is also true that, as a Sierra Club book once said, BLM lands are the "lands no one knows," then the BLM itself is the agency no one knows. Most western environmentalists, for example, have focused on the more glamorous Forest Service or Park Service.

People active in public lands issues know that the BLM manages about 264 million acres of land--the lands "left over" after homesteaders, timber companies, land developers, states, the Forest Service, Park Service, and other private parties and agencies took the lands they wanted. They know that most BLM lands are used for grazing, that it has negligible timber outside of western Oregon, and that the Bureau also manages mineral rights on both its land and most other federal lands.

But how many people know that BLM managers get to spend some of their oil and gas receipts on range improvements? How many know that a large share of BLM timber receipts goes to the Bureau of Reclamation to subsidize irrigation? How many know that Congress recently let the BLM keep salvage sale receipts to spend on "ecosystem health"? And how many know that BLM payments to states range anywhere from 4 percent all the way to a whopping 90 percent?

Each of these decisions represents a bit of pork, a favor Congress handed out to some special interest at everyone else's expense--and, often, with a serious environmental cost as well. Yet even though the BLM manages nearly one-third more land than the Forest Service, the agency remains largely unknown to the general public.

This is partly true because the BLM tends to be fairly secretive about what it does: Research for this issue of Different Drummer took much longer than expected because the BLM sometimes takes months to provide information that the Forest Service hands out in an instant.

Despite delays, Different Drummer presents reports on several aspects of the BLM. First is a detailed paper on BLM timber outside of western Oregon. This article, which was originally prepared for the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, finds that several BLM districts are cutting far more timber than they can sustain. Then come reports on BLM recreation and minerals, and a proposal by Andy Kerr to reform BLM (and Forest Service) grazing policies.

This issue also contains a comparison of receipts and costs on each of the 60 BLM districts. The analysis shows that most districts lose money on all of their major resources: timber, grazing, minerals, and recreation. No one in the BLM seems to care about these losses; no one even keeps track of revenues vs. expenses.

This is not surprising, since Congress has always focused on physical outputs rather than profitability. This has allowed the Bureau to become wasteful and inefficient. Even if physical outputs were an appropriate goal, those outputs could be produced at a far lower cost.

The BLM's numerous environmental problems--conflicts between mining and water, grazing and recreation, and timber and wildlife--can all be traced to this disregard for efficiency. Managers with incentives to efficiently produce the resources with the greatest value would manage to avoid such problems.

The BLM is far from a model agency. Yet its failings derive directly from Congress and only Congress can fix it. We conclude with a proposal for reforming the BLM. But any reform would be an improvement as long as it gave agency managers an incentive to reduce costs and increase the value of the resources in their care.

History of the BLM

The BLM was created in 1946, when the Department of the Interior merged two older agencies: the General Land Office, created in 1800 to sell off the public lands and encourage settlement; and the Grazing Service, created in 1934 to manage grazing on public lands. The conflicting mandates of land disposal and land stewardship contributed to a schizophrenic nature that remains to this day.

The General Land Office

The General Land Office's man-date was to dispose of the hundreds of millions of acres the federal government had acquired from treaties with Indian tribes, English land grants, and other land deals. The very first branch, located in Cincinnati, gave western settlers access to auctions of public domain land that had previously been held in New York City and other eastern ports.

And dispose of the land they did. By 1860, the General Land Office had disposed of 300 million acres of federal land, most of which had been sold for pennies per acre. Local land offices, understaffed and responsible for thousands of square miles of public domain, were neither equipped nor inclined to investigate the validity of individual claims. In fact, cash sales and commission payments for land agents virtually guaranteed speculation, fraud, and mismanagement. Agents were too busy trying to sell claims to worry about enforcement of the laws.

Congress designed land laws with the intent of giving small farmers or war veterans the advantage of securing land over big business and land speculators. But these good intentions nearly always produced the opposite results.

Collectively, the various homestead and lands acts actually encouraged extractive industries to move in on unclaimed lands, take valuable resources for well below market rates, and leave the land in less than desirable states. Of course, the General Land Office, which often benefited from these policies, had an incentive to accept the claims and ignore the problems.

A large part of the problem is that the land laws failed to account for the aridity of the West. By letting people have only 160 acres, laws such as the Homestead Act made it impossible for anyone to have enough land to earn a living. The only way to make money from the land was to get around the laws.

In response to public concerns, Congress in 1891 allowed the president to withdraw forest lands from settlement or disposal. In two years, President Cleveland created seventeen forest reserves of nearly 18 million acres, all initially managed by the General Land Office.

In 1905, Gifford Pinchot convinced Congress to transfer these reserves to his Bureau of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture. But the General Land Office still had plenty to do: issuing leases and collecting fees and royalties from minerals off of the lands recently withdrawn from settlement under the Withdrawal Act of 1910, administering the Enlarged Homestead Act, and keeping tract of the dwindling public domain.

The Grazing Service

Outside the national forests, homesteading and unrestricted livestock use on public domain lands continued unabated until the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which directed the Secretary of Interior "to stop injury to the public grazing lands by preventing overgrazing." The secretary created the Division of Grazing (renamed the Grazing Service in 1939), complete with "regional graziers" to complement the Forest Service's regional foresters. Like the Forest Service, the Grazing Division was established to bring order from social chaos and to impose controls on public land grazing.

The law was a little late. By the time the Grazing Act was implemented, the range productivity of Grazing Division lands had been depleted by two-thirds.

Part of the problem was that Congressional representatives from the eastern part of the country differed widely with their western counterparts over the fate of the public lands. Westerners wanted privatization. Easterners, wedded to the already failing Progressive ideal, wanted public land. The Taylor Grazing Act was a compromise that failed to give either side what they wanted. Like many compromises, the result was bad from both views.

For example, the advisory committees required by the act to help managers allocate the range were mostly composed of ranchers. This guaranteed that grazing fees on public domain lands were far below market rates. So, by 1941, Grazing Service revenues only covered 20 percent of the administrative costs. Attempts by the agency to increase fees stirred opposition from western senators and cattlemen.

Eastern senators saw the Grazing Service and its below-market user fees as a black hole for federal subsidies. Western senators argued to keep the fees down. By 1946, the dispute over fees and pressure from the cattlemen to transfer the public domain grazing lands to private ownership and avoid Grazing Service regulations led Congress to slash the Grazing Service's budget by 50 percent.

This made eastern senators happy because it cut the subsidy; western ranchers were happy because the Grazing Service was rendered incapable of regulating them. Finally, the Service's headquarters were moved from Washington, D.C., to Salt Lake City, where more direct control might be exercised by cattlemen.

The BLM and Grazing

The 1946 debates over the Grazing Service led the Secretary of the Interior to combine that agency with the General Land Office to form the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM inherited the Grazing Service's mission of managing the public domain while it was still public and the General Land Office's mission of disposing of the public domain. In the eyes of some cattlemen, it was a temporary agency only necessary until they could gain title to the public domain.

But the Bureau survived and managed to hold on to most of its lands until 1976. In that year, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which ended the policy of land disposal. This law--which was largely written by the BLM--attempted to bring that agency up to Forest Service standards by prescribing inventories, a planning process, and sustained-yield and multiple-use management.

FLPMA also readjusted the distribution of grazing fees, with 50 percent going to range improvement. Two years later, the Public Rangelands Improvement Act helped ranchers by fixing grazing fees well below market levels with a grazing fee formula that is still used today.

The BLM and Minerals

The United States initially leased, then sold, minerals on lands it held in the east. The 1848 discovery of gold in California, however, caught the United States without a general mineral policy in the West. Miners were forced to develop their own laws and regulations, organize mining districts, devise rules to determine how claims were staked and titles held, and enforce these in miner courts.

Congress decided its mining policy in 1872 with the passage of the General Mining Law. This allowed "valuable" mineral deposits to be "free and open to exploration and purchase." Claimants had to perform $100 of assessment work yearly and show at least $500 worth of improvements before they could patent, or buy the land for $2.50 to $5.00 an acre. In other words, miners had to "use it or lose it," even if the land was more valuable for other uses. In 1873, Congress provided for the sale of lands with coal deposits.

In 1879, Congress designed the U.S. Geological Survey to handle "the classification of the public lands and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources and products of the national domain." The development of minerals on public lands was given priority over other possible land uses.

At the turn of the century, the growing economic importance of coal led many to question the federal government's coal "giveaway policy." In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt authorized the reservation of 66 million acres of coal-rich lands to the federal government. Roosevelt's successors followed with the reservation of first oil and gas, and later, phosphate, nitrate, potash, and asphaltic minerals. In 1920, Congress passed the Mineral Leasing Act, allowing individuals and companies to prospect for and develop these minerals.

Under the Mineral Leasing Act, Congress retained federal title to the land, defined authority to control exploration and production, and collected royalties and rents from private developers. The law was administered by the Geological Survey, which classified public lands according to mineral value, the General Land Office, which issued leases and collected fees and royalties, and the Bureau of Mines, which oversaw lease development. Mineral Leasing Act revenues were allocated by a 50-40-10 formula: 50 percent to the state where the revenue was provided, 40 percent to a "Reclamation Fund" to support projects in the western states, and 10 percent to the General Fund of the U.S. Treasury.

When the BLM was established, it continued General Land Office functions by issuing leases and administering mining claims on the public lands. It also began overseeing the leasing of mineral estates acquired by the federal government with the passage of the Acquired Minerals Leasing Act of 1947. In 1953, with the Outer Continental Shelf Act, the agency lost control of the oil-rich tidelands --those offshore lands extending seaward three miles from the coast--to the states of California, Texas, and Louisiana. The federal government, however, retained title to the area beyond the three-mile limit known as the outer continental shelf.

The BLM was assigned the responsibility for leasing the outer continental shelf area through competitive sales, while the Geological Survey was to oversee prospecting and development. The Geothermal Act of 1970 authorized the BLM to issue leases for development and use of geothermal resources (primarily for the production of electricity) on public lands.

In 1982, the Reagan Administration created the Minerals Management Service and transferred to it all minerals functions of the Geological Survey. The service was designed to ensure collection of royalties the administration felt the Treasury was losing due to poor accounting and bidding practices.

Later that same year, all onshore minerals management functions were transferred to the BLM, and BLM's offshore mineral operations were moved to the Minerals Management Service. This consolidated all management for minerals on public lands in BLM hands.

BLM and Forestry

The BLM's largest timber holdings are on Oregon and California (O&C) lands, which, despite the name, are located only in western Oregon. These lands had been granted in 1866 to the Oregon and California Railroad Company for construction of a railroad from Portland to San Francisco. The company, which only reached the Oregon border, ignored the conditions of the land grant--that lands be sold to actual settlers in 160-acre parcels for no more than $2.50 per acre--so in 1916, Congress revoked title to nearly 3 million acres of the grant. In 1919, the federal government reclaimed another 93,000 acres from the nearby Coos Bay Wagon Road Grant.

The revested lands had some of the best timber stands in the United States, and Congress gave them to the General Land Office to manage. The Land Office's mandate was to sell the timber and then dispose of the lands according to their highest value--power sites, agriculture, or timber.

But timber sales were disappointing, and the Land Office was criticized for its management. So Congress wrote the O&C Act of 1937, which emphasized timber management over other uses, called for a sustained-yield program, and allowed lands to be used for grazing and recreation, and watersheds, wildlife, and other resources to be "protected." Finally, 75 percent of the revenues from timber were to go to the counties in which the lands were located.

The counties eventually decided to give the BLM one-third of their share to manage the lands. The agency soon had a major program selling old-growth timber. In the 1970s, it invested much of its share of receipts into intensive management, including thinnings, fertilizers, and herbicides.

Outside of Alaska and western Oregon, the BLM initially had no authority to manage its 3 million acres of commercial forests and 25 million acres of woodlands. It could only dispose of the lands or sell salvage timber. This was changed by the Materials Act of 1947, which allowed the BLM to sell timber and directed that most of the receipts would go into Bureau of Reclamation irrigation projects.

In the 1970s and 1980s, environmental groups protested the use of herbicides and cutting of old-growth forests on O&C lands, and argued for full multiple use of the lands. The President's Northwest Forest Plan greatly reduced timber sales on these lands. But in the meantime, the agency intensified its management of forests and woodlands in other states for timber, fuelwood, and other products. The agency remains embroiled in controversy over forest management.

BLM and Recreation

In its early years, the BLM lacked legislative authority to provide recreational. In some areas, district personnel built facilities for camping and picnics, even thought they lacked the authority to do so.

The Public Works Acceleration Act of 1962 provided federal assistance to areas hard hit by recession and gave the Bureau its first major recreation funding, mainly for campgrounds and picnic sites. In 1964 the Land & Water Conservation Fund Act authorized funds for the BLM to acquire recreation areas.

Originally, user fees were supposed to supply the bulk of these funds. However, revenues were negligible because federal land managers were reluctant to charge for recreation, particularly since they didn't get to keep any of the receipts. So in 1968 Congress provided direct appropriations from outer continental shelf revenues to the Land & Water Conservation Fund.

In 1965 the agency received its first regular recreation appropriation. Others, like the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the National Trails System of 1968, and the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 all added to the BLM's recreation program budget. By the mid-1970s, the agency's annual recreation budget was $9 million.

Today, the BLM spends over $30 million per year on recreation. A recreation fee demonstration project was implemented in 1997, giving the BLM authority to start up new pilot projects for user fee collection at select sites. Managers get to keep revenues from these projects, which should give the BLM a new look at recreation.

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