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Public Lands in Focus: Bureau of Land Management

Public Lands in Focus: Bureau of Land Management

Executive Director Mark Allison Interviews Acting BLM New Mexico State Director Aden Seidlitz

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MA: Can you describe your relationship to our federal public lands and how you became involved with theBureau of Land Management (BLM)?

AS: My personal and professional interests have always been tied to the land. I grew up on a farm in Chester, Montana. My grandfather instilled a love of the outdoors and a land ethic in me through our operation of the family farm and during the many camping, fishing and hiking trips we enjoyed throughout my childhood. My entire career has been spent with the BLM, over 31 years to date. I was selected to serve as the BLMNew Mexico Associate State Director on July 2, 2012. Recently, upon the retirement of State Director Jesse Juen, I began serving as Acting New Mexico State Director, overseeing more than 13 million surface acres and 26 million acres of mineral estate.

In my spare time, I continue to enjoy hiking, camping and running on public lands with my family.

MA: As you know, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance is submitting our Lands with Wilderness Characteristics inventory data for the Carlsbad, Tri-County and Farmington BLM districts. How do you use this information and is it helpful?

AS: It is our responsibility to update the inventory of the public’s resources, including wilderness characteristics. Our local offices are actively engaged in inventorying wilderness characteristics in support of Resource Management Plan revisions and other project work. The data we receive from the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and other groups helps to inform our inventory update by alerting us to conditions that we might not have been aware of.   

MA: There are 57 BLM Wilderness Study Areas in New Mexico. WSAs do not enjoy permanent legislative protection. Can you discuss any threats or opportunities regarding these WSAs?

AS: One of the emerging threats that our WSAs experience is related to vehicle routes.WSAs are under consideration for Wilderness designation, and while under that consideration, pre-existing vehicle routes can continue to be used. When these informal routes get washed out, visitors often drive around the problem areas, creating new routes. These new routes are not consistent with the management of WSAs. Monitoring the routes in WSAs and taking appropriate action to prevent new routesfrom developing creates a considerable workload.

The routes most susceptible to resource degradation were worn in by the passage of vehicles without consideration of water drainage and soil stability needs. We are working with ranchers to identify routes to grandfathered grazing facilities, such as fences and stock tanks, which would be more compatible with safeguarding soils. This does not mean creating new roads, as the access needs to many facilities may be infrequent. The new route may never be visible as a two track on the ground, but is still suitable in providing needed access for facility repair. 

WSAs are remarkable places! While waiting at a local train stop, a gentleman asked if I worked for the BLM. I said yes, and he responded by saying that he has hiked nearly every WSA in New Mexico and found them to be some of the most spectacular places he has ever seen. It pleased me to hear directly how much the public enjoys and appreciates our WSAs.

MA: There are approximately 96,000 acres of state land within the new Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. We’d like to see that land exchanged for more appropriate BLM land outside the monument to enhance the integrity and management of the monument. Can you give us a sense of how and when that might happen and if there are things the public can do to help?

AS: The BLM and the New Mexico State Land Office (SLO) have been working under a Memorandum of Understanding that sets forth the procedures to establish a comprehensive land exchange program. Since 2000, the BLM and the SLO have completed a variety of land exchanges, including the San Felipe Exchange, the Santo Domingo Exchange, the Ojito Exchange, the Bisti/Ah-she-sle-pah Exchange and the Santa Teresa Exchange.

Consolidation of land holdings in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is desired by the BLM. We intend to work with the new SLO administration in the next several months to discuss the possibility of initiating land exchanges that include this area. If any exchange progresses, we look forward to hearing thoughts from the public throughout the process.

MA: What do you think is the biggest misconception the public has about the Bureau of Land Management?

AS: The biggest misconception is that the BLM “got the land that nobody wanted – wasteland.” Today, I would argue that it is some of the best land in the West. Since 1976 and the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) by Congress, the BLM’s mission has been one of multiple use and sustained yield. FLMPA ushered in the development of local resource management plansto determine the best uses for public lands.Another notable misconception about the BLM is how we go about planning for our multiple-use mission. We solicit and encourage substantive input from interest groups, industry, agencies and the general public, all of which is used to develop management alternatives that are analyzed for their impacts prior to a decision being made. The public’s views and desires are an important and critical part of BLM’s public land management.

MA: Many people are concerned about the possibility of new oil and gas development adjacent to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Can you tell us where the BLM is in that process and any insights you may have about how it will conclude?

AS: We are currently deferring all leases for unleased BLM-administered parcels within 10 miles around Chaco Culture NHP. However, within that 10-mile circle, the BLM only administers roughly 19 percent of the mineral estate. The BLM will consider closing those BLM parcels to fluid minerals leasing as one of our alternatives in the Environmental Impact Statement for the Resource Management Plan Amendment that is currently under way.

Additionally, for any federal undertaking that the BLM permits, we undergo extensive consultation with the state Historic Preservation Office, tribes, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and other interested parties to fully comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. This process involves identification of cultural resources eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. When we identify actions that may cause an adverse effect to one of these historic properties, through consultation, we develop plans to mitigate adverse effects, usually by avoidance.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs administers oil and gas leasing on the Indian Allotted Land around Chaco, which makes up about 80 percent of the mineral estate. We are unaware of any BIA proposal to lease lands adjacent to Chaco for oil and gas development. 

MA: What would you like the public to know about BLM land and how best they might enjoy and explore it? Are there ways for the public to be involved in BLM land management?

AS: BLM New Mexico manages over 13 million surface acres. Most of this public land is open for recreational usesuch as hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, horseback riding, OHVing and much moreon landscapes that range from high deserts to rugged lava flows, from badlands to wild and scenic rivers, and from forests to deep canyons.We also manage National Conservation Lands, public lands with exceptional qualities. National Conservation Lands units are managed to conserve and protect nationally significant landscapes recognized for their outstanding cultural, ecological and scientific values. These special areas contain some of the state’s most spectacular landscapes and include four national monuments, two national conservation areas, five wilderness areas and 57 wilderness study areas. We also co-manage three national historic trails and two wild and scenic rivers. The public lands also offer nationally significant energy and mineral resources, a great variety of wildlife, historic and prehistoric sites, wild horse and burro management areas, and numerous grazing allotments.

The public can be involved in BLM land management by becoming Resource Advisory Council members or by providing substantive input on Resource Management Plans, Environmental Impact Statements, Environmental Assessments, or other National Environmental Policy Act processes.Find out more by visiting our website atwww.blm.gov/nm

MA: With the designations of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in 2013 and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in 2014, both on BLM managed land, what do you tell your colleagues when they ask why New Mexico has received so much attention lately?

AS: I tell them that New Mexico contains some of the most spectacular landscapes in the West. These designations are merely a reflection of the valuable public land resources present in these two areas and the importance placed upon them by the people of New Mexico. I also encourage them to come and visit the Land of Enchantment!

MA: Given HEYCO's recent successful flare test on Otero Mesa, are you concerned that pressure will once again be placed on Otero Mesa for gas development?

AS: Any future leasing will be analyzed in the Tri-County Resource Management Plans (RMP) and Environmental Impact Statement. Until that RMP is completed and land allocation decisions are made, oil and gas leasing will be deferred and development can only occur on existing leases. A recent production test indicated the two existing gas wells were capable of production in paying quantities. With current gas prices and the lack of transportation infrastructure, I don’t anticipate a lot of pressure for additional wells.

MA: Any new changes coming to the BLM structure/website/public info in 2015?

AS: In 2015, you’ll see multiple changes to our website (www.blm.gov/nm). This year, the BLM will be transitioning to a new web platform. Although most of the content will remain the same, the look and feel of the website will be updated to make the site more user-friendly and visually interesting. We’re also close to launching a national effort to provide interactive maps for our National Landscape Conservation System and recreation areas. Be on the lookout for a national press release about these interactive maps.

Since 2009, the BLM has also had a social media presence. To date, NM BLM has over 3,500 “likes” on Facebook, 2,600 on our Las Cruces District Facebook page alone, over 1,700 photos on Flickr, and over 30,000 views of our videos on YouTube. We recently joined Twitter where we ask the public to “follow” us to receive news updates.

MA: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing BLM in the next 10 years?

AS: I see budget constraints as the biggest challenge facing the BLM. While our employees are skilled and anxious to manage, monitor and improve the health of our public lands, they are often stretched thin with less funding available to accomplish the necessary studies, research and other activities essential to successful management. One would think that since BLM activities make money for the American people (nationally, for every one dollar spent, the agency brings in about five dollars) appropriate funding would not be an issue. Adequate funding is essential to ensure that facilities such as our campgrounds and recreation areas, as well as our grasslands and watersheds, are in good condition and can be used and enjoyed by current visitors and future generations. Another challenge is the constant push to turn the public lands over to the states. It doesn’t make sense to say that others could do a better job at managing public lands if the current caretakers are not provided the necessary resources to get the job done. 

Another challenge is the technology boom that has Americans, especially youth, glued to screens. I worry the day may be coming when public lands are no longer appreciated, loved and supported by a majority of our citizens. This, of course, would further erode support for the agency and our mission.