Is America’s Largest Land Management Agency Being Dismantled?

08/19/2019

Over the last few weeks, Access Fund has been tracking several developments that have us concerned about the future of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—America’s largest land agency, responsible for more than 247 million acres of public land. Many of America’s best climbing areas are located on BLM land—including Indian Creek, Red Rock, Trout Creek, Fisher Towers, Virgin River Gorge, Joe’s Valley, and many others.


The world-class climbing at Red Rock Canyon in Nevada is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. PaiuteTerritories.

Last month, the Trump administration appointed William Pendley, a lawyer with a concerning track record, to lead BLM. The agency also announced that it will move its national headquarters out of Washington DC to Grand Junction, Colorado. These developments raise alarm bells for the future of the BLM and our public lands.

Prior to joining the BLM, Pendley was longtime president of Mountain States Legal Foundation, where he advocated for the federal government to sell off millions of acres of federal land across the American West. Pendley also supported the “sagebrush rebellion”—a movement seeking major changes to federal land control in the western US, including transfer to state and local authorities and privatization. He has also been outwardly hostile towards federal land management agencies and argued that they should be dismantled.

On top of this change in leadership, the plan to move BLM headquarters out of Washington, DC would greatly reduce the agency’s presence in our nation’s capital at a time when our public lands are increasingly subject to partisan debates. A sustained presence in Washington, DC is critical to give agency leaders and policy makers in Congress the opportunity to work together in managing our public lands.

While Department of Interior (DOI) officials have been careful to position this move as a way to put BLM administrators in closer proximity to the lands they manage, we are concerned that it will accelerate the rate at which longtime agency staff are leaving their positions in the federal government and transitioning out of public service. Federal agencies are losing valuable expertise and years of important institutional knowledge, and moving BLM headquarters out of DC is likely to exacerbate this problem.

The combination of these two developments is perhaps most alarming. If the administration attempts to sell off our public lands, as Pendley has advocated throughout his career, who will be left in the agency to stand up for the public interest? Will there be anyone left in DC or scattered across BLM field offices to fight for keeping public lands in public hands? Or will a gutted agency roll over and allow our natural legacy—including some of America’s best climbing areas—to be sold off to the highest bidder?

Over our 30-year history, Access Fund has learned that these types of structural changes often precede significant changes in policy. For years, the climbing community has enjoyed a strong partnership with BLM, including an official partnership agreement and the recent release of an interactive map that displays the best BLM climbing areas around the country. As climbers who care deeply about our public lands, we have a lot at stake when it comes to oversight and management of BLM.

Our community must continue to stand up and fight for the protection of our public lands. Access Fund is preparing for a trip to Capitol Hill and will continue to lead this fight for the climbing community, opposing public land transfer, unconfirmed land agency leaders, national monument reduction, limitations on public input, unbalanced energy policy, and other attacks on our public lands system. Stay tuned for updates, and consider signing up for our Policy Digest for an insider’s look into what’s happening in Washington, DC.