You may not know it, but you own a big chunk of the West — 245 million acres, in fact.
They are the public lands, owned by all Americans and cared for by the Bureau of Land Management, an agency in the Department of the Interior.
In Alaska, the BLM manages 70 million acres of land, including the 24-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Public land is vital to those in our state who love the outdoors and those who depend on the land for their living.
They’re valuable lands. They provide places for recreation, sources of energy and minerals, subsistence hunting for some of our rural communities, a home to thousands of species of plants and wildlife, and even rangeland grazing for reindeer on the Seward Peninsula. Nationally the land ranges in character from desert canyon lands in the Southwest to Arctic tundra in here Alaska. There is no comparable system of public land ownership in the world.
And it’s a system in trouble.
Politically appointed leaders in the BLM and Interior Department are quietly dismantling the agency’s core in Washington, D.C. With little or no public comment, no sound financial analysis and skirting the intent of Congress, more than 150 people who work in Washington, D.C., have received notice that their jobs will be relocated in scattered Western locations over the next few months.
The choice for them is stark: Accept the reassignment or be terminated.
Aside from the lack of compassion and consideration shown the employees, there are other serious problems with this ill-thought plan.
Without representation in Washington, D.C., the BLM will lose its ability to work closely with Congress, other resource agencies, industry, conservation groups and other stakeholders. The drain of talent and experience will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. The intention of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is clear: weaken BLM to the point where decisions about public land — your public land — are controlled by special interests and not the public interest.
Bernhardt says that land-use decisions should be made by people in the West who are most affected by them. I agree. The fact is, 97% of BLM employees already work in Western states and all land-use decisions are prepared, approved and put into practice at the local level. Perhaps more than any other resource agency, BLM is attuned to local needs and customs.
I know about BLM firsthand. I served in senior leadership positions in fire and resource management over the course of 43 years, including 22 years here in Alaska. I spent my career trying to ensure the best and most equitable decisions were made regarding natural resources. The threat posed by this transfer of the BLM headquarters’ function is real, and the consequences will be devastating, and perhaps, irreversible.
BLM’s budget is controlled by Congress. A Dec. 20 funding deadline looms. It’s time for you to speak up and let your congressional representatives know that this misguided and foolish move must be halted before it’s too late.
As Alaskans, you have 70 million reasons to get involved. These are your lands. Let’s work together to keep them that way.
Ron Dunton worked at every level of the BLM organization in Alaska, New Mexico, and Idaho. He retired in 2017 as the BLM assistant director responsible for fire and aviation management and returned home to Chugiak.