This West Is OUR West

DuBois Column - Moving the swamp to the West and possible CEQ revisions

September 4, 2018

Zinke’s folly

On July 21 in Denver, Secretary of Interior Zinke briefed a group of United States Geological Survey senior executives on his reorganization proposal. Zinke said he probably planned to move the headquarters of the BLM, the USFWS and the Bureau of Reclamation to Denver, based on notes taken by the senior executives and obtained by E&E news. The following is based on those notes.

There are some good thoughts here by Zinke.

It included discussion of the secretary's desire to shift more department resources and personnel from Washington to field offices across the country and empower front-line employees with more decisionmaking authority.

I have no quarrel with shifting resources and personnel out of DC and I agree with giving front-line employees more decisonmaking authority. The latter was one of our many accomplishments during the Reagan administration. Both can be accomplished under current authorities and do not require a major reorganization including establishing different zones for ecosystem management. 

"Zinke believes the DOI organization is an upside-down pyramid — there are too many high-graded employees," the notes said. "There needs to be more lower grades, and they need to be in the field. Example, when a GS-14 retires, we should hire a GS-6 or 9."

What Zinke says here is true of many federal agencies, including the Dept. of Interior. Taking action to remedy this is an excellent goal, but again, can be accomplished within the current structure.

Zinke has told lawmakers that he wants to reduce the department workforce by 4,000 full-time jobs through a mix of attrition, separation incentives and reassignments to meet the recommendations of the Trump administration's fiscal 2018 budget request.

A laudable goal for which I wish him great success. The problem here is the Republicans in Congress who so far have refused to go along with budget cuts.

The Montanan, a former Navy SEAL, also outlined for career managers his plan to have field offices report to regional joint management areas (JMAs) based on watershed and wildlife corridors. The idea is based on the military's joint command structure. Leadership at the JMAs "could change or rotate between bureaus in the JMAs," the notes said. "They are looking to select two to three cities in each of the 13 regions which will compete to be site of the regional/JMA office," the meeting notes said. "Cities have to be no more than two hops from D.C. (by air), affordable and with good community infrastructure."

This is where Zinke and I part. I have previously written these Joint Management Areas look suspiciously like the Climate Science Centers and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives established under President Obama. The House Committee on Natural Resources has been highly critical of these entities. “Despite a significant federal investment of at least $149 million, their effectiveness, management, and levels of oversight remain serious concerns to the Committee.” An Office of Inspector General report found “the LCCs failed to adequately keep track of their projects” in an accessible database.

Despite the OIG reports and the concerns expressed by the Committee, Zinke appears to base his reorganization on the same concept - ecosystem management. Some will say the Obama LCCs were the first step, and now Zinke proposes to implement the same management scheme in a fashion not even dared by the Obama administration. It has been observed the environmental community has not been critical of the overall concept. Some think this is what they have been after for years. 

On a hike in Colorado and speaking of the need for reorganization, Zinke said:

“There’s no reason a trail can’t begin on Forest Service property and go into a park and end up on (Bureau of Land Management) property”

Zinke is right, there is no reason it can't be accomplished, which means it does not provide a reason to reorganize.

The Forest Service is in the USDA, not the USDI, so of what relevance is his example to a reorganization of the USDI?

“If you’re a military commander, it makes sense to put your headquarters next to the fight,”

It is a war zone out here. The cause of the skirmishes, however, are various federal laws. It matters little where you place the soldiers. The battle will continue and harm inflicted until the cause - federal law - is addressed.

Where are Zinke's war-ending, peace proposals to amend the ESA, NEPA, CWA, CAA, FLPMA, etc.? So far, his highest legislative priority is to increase infrastructure funding and permanently fund federal land acquisition. From my perspective, that's like improving the supply lines and increasing the ranks of the federal army. We in the West want to sue for peace, but all Zinke is proposing is to move the troops around. It may appear he is doing something, but in the long run it will accomplish little. He's not draining the swamp, he's just moving it West.

Writing recently in the Daily Caller, Tim Pearce referred to the proposed move of the BLM headquarters as a “good faith gesture” to farmers and ranchers who often complain of an agency far away from them and the resources they use.

A "good faith gesture" is an accurate description of this proposal. It is just a gesture. Not a single law, regulation, field manual or policy memo is changed. The same landlord will exist, implementing the same statutory and regulatory regime.

Currently 94 percent of BLM employees are stationed in the field. I fail to see how moving the remaining 6 percent will result in any substantive change.

Think back to the Obama administration. If the headquarters of the BLM and the USFWS had been located in Colo. or Utah, what real difference would this have made? Would the administration of grazing permits, the implementation of NEPA, or the preferred alternatives in land use plans have been different? Would the number of endangered species listed have been different? Or the number and size of critical habitat designations?

If these agencies had been headquartered in the West, would their Congressional testimony, on behalf of the Obama administration, in favor of additional wilderness areas and other restrictive designations have been different?

Would Obama have designated fewer National Monuments?

I think not.

My fear is that while we have Republicans controlling the Presidency and both Houses of Congress, we are squandering an opportunity to bring meaningful, long-term changes to the statutes under which we are governed, and instead are spending energy, time and political capital debating and determining where our oppressors will be located.

Zinke is working on “upside-down pyramids” while we should be removing chariots from the Pharaoh’s arsenal.

Somewhere in the West, a chamber of commerce would benefit from the relocation of these headquarters. An urban area will welcome the federal employees and the additional spending they will bring. In the rural areas, where these lands and their users actually exist, little will have changed.

NEPA changes

The Council on Environmental Quality recently put out a call for suggestions how on how to revise the CEQ regulations on NEPA. Nick Ashcroft, on behalf of the Linebery Policy Center at NMSU responded with eight pages of comments.

Ashcroft writes that many view commenting on the NEPA documents as a waste of time because “they are viewed as only justifying the predetermined agency actions” and that only the environment impacts are presented “while the social or economic impacts of the human environment” are minimized or considered inconsequential.

Ashcroft then offers dozens of specific suggestions on how to improve the process. His comments are available on the Linebery Policy Center website to review or download.

Until next time, be a nuisance to the devil and don’t forget to check that cinch.

Frank DuBois was the NM Secretary of Agriculture from 1988 to 2003, is the author of a blog: The Westerner (http://www.thewesterner.blogspot.com/) and is the founder of The DuBois Rodeo Scholarship and The DuBois Western Heritage Foundation

This column first appeared in the September editions of the NM Stockman and the Livestock Market Digest