Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency
The Biden transition team is in the early stages of developing a shortlist of potential nominees to lead the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a public lands agency critics say has slipped into disarray during the Trump administration.
The BLM could be a particularly useful agency for an administration intent on shifting climate policy and reducing emissions, but it has largely been hollowed out in the past four years.
The bureau has lost nearly 70 percent of its Washington-based staff during the Trump administration, and many environmentalists decry what they see as an effort by Trump officials to forge ties with oil and gas companies that drill on public lands at the expense of conservation.
“They pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall, and someone needs to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said Ken Rait, who directs the public lands project at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
There’s a growing consensus among the agency’s proponents that the next director needs to be someone who is intimately familiar with the organization in order to stabilize BLM and boost the morale of its remaining employees.
Under its current leadership, BLM underwent a controversial relocation of its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colo., while scattering the rest of the Washington-based staff to various federal offices around the West.
Many opponents saw the move, and the resulting brain drain, as a way to dismantle the agency, leaving just 61 of the agency’s 10,000 employees in Washington, compared with about 350 employees in previous administrations.
“The only way to be successful, particularly with the heavy lift that is required to deal with all disruption caused by Trump administration, is really to find someone from within who doesn’t have to prove their credibility to the rank and file from the outset, but then, with their confidence, can begin representing them with leadership in the department and on Capitol Hill and with other agencies,” a former high-ranking Interior official told The Hill.
Public lands advocates have floated a number of possible contenders for BLM director in the Biden administration: Steve Ellis, who held the highest-ranking career position at BLM during the Obama administration; Nada Culver, a lawyer with the Audubon Society; and Neil Kornze, who led the agency under former President Obama.
Kornze did not respond to an email inquiring about his interest in the job.
Ellis and Culver said they have not been contacted by the Biden transition team about the BLM director role, while adding that they have not sought the job either.
But both Ellis and Culver — two vocal critics of how the agency has been run under President Trump — offered their thoughts on what needs changing.
“It’s a big challenge, right, because you have to simultaneously rebuild the agency and turn it in a new direction,” Culver said.
“I think you have to stop this Grand Junction sideshow and put the agency back so it can concentrate on actually fulfilling its mission. At the same time, there’s obviously a need to clarify the mission because the BLM has really been narrowed in terms of what they can do under this administration.”
Ellis said he thinks it will be important to tap someone with a track record of dealing with all the groups that have a stake in public lands — conservation groups, ranchers and nearby communities and tribes — in addition to the oil and mining interests he says have been favored by the Trump administration.
“They’ve been looking to all these extractive industries, and it needs to be brought back in balance. It needs to be brought back to science and resource-based decisions. Conservation needs to be brought back into the mission, and human-caused climate change also needs to be brought back to the forefront,” he told The Hill.
Ellis could potentially be hired to come back to the bureau for anywhere from six months to a year under an Interior Department policy that allows retirees to return temporarily — a move that could allow him to serve in the role briefly without Senate confirmation.
Observers of the Interior Department, which oversees BLM, said all three contenders are highly respected.
One public lands advocate said picking Ellis would “represent a return to normalcy, a return to the steady state professionals,” adding that he might be an easier pick for drawing support from Republicans.
The advocate added that Culver “is just an expert in all things BLM-related” who would know how to craft lasting land management decisions.
BLM nominees and the agency itself seldom make headlines, but that’s changed during the Trump administration.
The de facto head of the agency, William Perry Pendley, has a long history of opposing federal ownership of public lands.
He was recently ousted from the top post by a federal judge who ruled that his roughly yearlong temporary appointment violated federal vacancy laws. Pendley remains in one of the top roles at the bureau, but the court ruling means BLM will soon face a number of lawsuits seeking to unravel numerous decisions while Pendley was in charge.
The lawsuits from outside groups and the rancor from Democrats forced the administration to formally nominate Pendley for the job, but he was withdrawn in short order as conservation groups began running ads questioning whether vulnerable Republicans up for reelection, like Sens. Cory Garnder (Colo.) and Steve Daines (Mont.), would support him. Gardner lost his reelection bid while Daines was successful.
“Because of the Pendley situation, that will be a much higher profile nomination than there has ever been in the past. I don’t recall a Bureau of Land Management nomination making headlines — typically it’s a relatively low profile appointment — but because of the way the Trump administration botched that, whoever steps into BLM is going to have very big job,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog group.
The former senior Interior official said they wouldn’t be surprised to see Republicans make the confirmation process difficult for President-elect Joe Biden’s eventual nominee.
“Given the way Pendley was treated by the Democrats, whoever is nominated and goes up for confirmation, should it be a Republican Senate, is probably going to suffer for all the perceived difficulties, all the pain, that the environmental community and Democrats caused Pendley,” the former official said.