BLM Biologist Exposes Inside View Of Agency Priorities

This is a view expressed by another employee of the BLM, written up by Todd Wilkinson, published in New West.

BLM Biologist Exposes Inside View Of Agency Priorities

By Todd Wilkinson, 3-02-06

I often say to friends when they quiz me about details in a story I’ve written: Ninety-percent of what I actually know does not find its way into print. Leaving out information may be due to space limitations in the newspaper or magazine. It might be because the stuff I’ve learned is tangential or only slightly relevant to the angle of the story.

Or, as was the case with veteran Bureau of Land Management field biologist Steve Belinda, it might be because I’ve made a promise that I’ll be discreet about the opinions offered or the background information shared.A year ago last spring, I wrote a series of articles for The Christian Science Monitor about the energy boom in the West. The stories were focused on the gas drilling frenzy occurring in and around Pinedale, Wyoming. For the good part of a day, Belinda took me on a tour. We visited the Pinedale Anticline where gas production is about to dramatically increase and we talked about the precedent being set in the Jonah Field to the south.

These wide treeless expanses of high desert, covered with sagebrush, form ground zero in the national discussion about the Bush Administration’s national energy policy. “We’ve got a world-class gas play occurring in the same landscape that is home to world-class populations of wildlife,” Belinda told me of the 100,000 pronghorn (antelope), elk, deer, moose and other species that converge there. “I think can have both without sacrificing one for the other.”

Belinda was parroting what the BLM told him to say. I knew it. And I respected the tough spot he was in. Privately, he was seriously concerned about the way his agency was addressing the pace, scale and impacts of gas drilling, an activity that is generating billions of dollars.

“Come back to me in a year and let’s see if anything has changed,” he said once we shook hands and headed in different directions. Less than a year has passed but Mr. Belinda is gone from his job.

As the Washington Post reported, Belinda out of protest recently resigned from the agency to take a job with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Now he can do something he couldn’t do with the BLM: Speak candidly without fear of retaliation and seriously monitor the effects of gas drilling on wildlife.

The fact is he took pride in working for the federal government and would have stayed if he had been allowed to do his job.

The 37-year-old Mr. Belinda had signed up for a tour of duty in the BLM’s Pinedale Field Office in 2004 because he thought he could make a positive difference as two titanic forces of environment and full-field energy development converged. His wife was from Wyoming and her roots were calling her home. As a hunter and angler, he also was drawn to the abundance of wildlife in the state. The natural beauty, formed by the Wind River Mountains rising above the Upper Green River Valley to the east, and the presence of big game and good fishing in the area, are one reason why some of the senior advisors to President George Herbert Walker Bush, the current president’s father, bought ranches in the area, along with tycoons who made big money in the private sector.

Professionally, Belinda had a unique perspective when he arrived in Pinedale. For years, he had worked for the BLM in southern New Mexico, helping to manage gas leasing that had swept across the Permian Basin. “If only we could go back in time and apply the knowledge that we have today about impacts, things might be different there,” he told me as we cruised across the Anticline in his pick-up truck in 2005. “But over the decades, because of our own ignorance, opportunities were squandered in the Permian. I hope the same thing doesn’t happen here.”

Thousands of wells, tens of thousands of miles of pipeline and roads, and stubbles of compressor station nodes, are now proliferating in western Wyoming. It’s a veritable bonanza, filling the state coffers with a lottery strike of fiscal richness but causing even the most enthused to wonder what will be left when the gas play ends in a couple of decades.

What gets printed in a newspaper often doesn’t tell the whole story. Inside the BLM offices in Pinedale, away from public earshot, Belinda has been raising concerns about wildlife, air and water quality in the face of incredible political pressure to place priority on upping the well count and maximizing the volume of gas produced. When a reader of the Monitor called me demanding that I show him proof that any harm was occurring to the ecosystem, I couldn’t reveal what I was hearing from Belinda.

Ironically, the most intense pressure wasn’t coming from industry but from his own BLM superiors. Ironically, he told me last year, the oil and gas industry has a greater interest in being more sensitive on the land, and a willingness to modify its projects to accommodate wildlife, than the BLM does. Who’s calling the shots for the agency isn’t clear.

Who’s telling subordinate managers down the chain of command to get the gas out, the same way that Forest Service bosses of old ordered their underlings to get the timber cut out in the face of environmental degradation, isn’t known. At least not yet, but someday it will be.

As a biologist under the employ of the federal government working on behalf of citizens, raising red flags about wildlife — that is, if something doesn’t seem right — was Belinda’s job. But over and over, he was rebuffed by his superiors who tried to alienate him as being a non-team player. Playing on the BLM team today apparently means that the notion of multiple use of public lands, which means recognizing the need to balance development with the legal mandate of also protecting the natural assets of the land over the long term, has been placed on the back burner.

It was pathetic, Belinda said, that the BLM had turned its own few biologists into paper pushers, pulled them from the field and ordered them to help process as many drilling permits as possible. He would’ve rather been out monitoring the animals that he was trained to steward. Instead of having BLM biologists doing the work, the agency has contracted the work out, in conjunction with the gas companies, to produce reports.

“The BLM is pushing the biologists to be what I call ‘biostitutes,’ rather than allow them to be experts in the wildlife they are supposed to be managing,'” he told Post reporter Blaine Harden.

Despite BLM state director Bob Bennett’s insistence in Harden’s story that his agency is “doing our level best to deal with the impacts,” Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal is among many who doesn’t buy it. What could have been the model for doing development right could ultimately disgrace the BLM as an example of doing it wrong.

On behalf of the public, some say, our elected officials should demand a real investigation. Take an honest look at agency budget and staff priorities. Interview biologists who are now afraid to speak up, like Belinda was, for fear of losing their jobs. Talk to independent biologists who have chronicled impacts from energy development on pronghorn, sage grouse and mule deer.

Most of all, they could glean all the insight they can from Steve Belinda and the other Steve Belindas still working for the agency. Already, a report from the federal Government Accountability Office has chronicled the BLM’s single-minded focus on accommodating energy development over other things like wildlife and air quality. But it shouldn’t stop there. Wyoming’s Congressional Delegation could call for additional independent and objective review from GAO, from the Congressional Research Service and the National Academy of Sciences.

Growing evidence to the contrary raises doubts about claims from the BLM that it is doing its best, on behalf of the American people, to ensure responsible stewardship.

Best wishes in your new endeavor, Steve Belinda. I’m sure some of your former colleagues are glad you’re gone because you raised questions they didn’t want to answer. You were the kind of conscientious civil servant we need working in government.


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