When most of us think of public lands we tend to think of national parks and monuments managed by the National Park Service, national forests managed by the U. S. Forest Service, or wildlife refuges managed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But did you know that there is another Federal agency that manages more public land than these agencies do collectively? That agency is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The BLM was created in 1946 by the merger of two existing agencies, the General Land Office and the U. S. Grazing Service. The BLM manages 245 million surface acres of public land or about 10 percent of the total land area of the United States. It also manages about 1/3 of the subsurface mineral resources in the United States. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the BLM employs about 10,000 persons.
As you might imagine, most of the land managed by the BLM is in Alaska and in states west of the Mississippi River. It manages 72 million surface acres in Alaska and 42 million in Nevada. It manages 15.2 million acres of California or about 15 percent of the state’s land area. Conversely, it manages only 15,000 acres of land in the states east of the Mississippi.
What does management by the BLM entail? How does it manage these federal lands? For one thing, the BLM’s mission is to ensure that natural, cultural and historic resources on these lands are maintained for present and future uses in accordance with the laws of the land. But their mission goes well beyond preservation. The BLM also manages energy development, livestock grazing, and timber harvesting on these lands by leasing land and collecting fees for these purposes. They even manage wild horses living on public lands. Recreational opportunities on these lands including camping, fishing and hunting and other things such as dirt biking are also managed by the BLM.
The BLM’s management of public lands is not without controversy. Several western states feel that the public lands in their states should be owned and managed by the states. Also, there have been instances where ranchers have moved cattle onto public lands without leasing it or paying grazing fees. There have been situations in which public land leased for mining led directly to controversy between mining interests and conservation groups. More than one president has designated some public land areas as national monuments in preserve its natural beauty and to protect it from development.
But this is a water column. Why is a water guy interested in BLM managed lands? It’s because significant water resources in the United States originate from these lands. The water part of a BLM program entitled the Soil, Water and Air Program is aimed at assessing and restoring water quality conditions and managing water resources on BLM lands. The program includes reducing the discharge of pollutants into water resources, watershed assessments, and water quality monitoring. Clean water promotes healthy watersheds, which in turn leads to healthy plants, fish, and wildlife. The program also involves maintaining drinking water sources and providing safe recreational uses of water on public lands. The BLM partners with other federal and state agencies and stakeholders to design and implement restoration projects in priority watersheds.
While this program is relatively new, I’m gratified that BLM is involved in protecting and maintaining our most important natural resource.