U.S. Bureau of Land Management Essay

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Four federal agenci es administer most of the 671.8 million acres of land in the United States owned by the federal government (as of 2004, 29.6 percent of the total): the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior, and the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture. The BLM manages the largest proportion, 261.5 million acres (12.5 percent of the total land in the United States) and is responsible for managing subsurface mineral resources on an additional 300 million acres. Most of the lands the BLM manages are located in ten western states and Alaska and are dominated by rangelands and deserts and, in Alaska, by forests, high mountains, and arctic tundra. The BLM manages a wide variety of resources and uses, including energy and minerals; timber; forage; wild horse and burro populations; fish and wildlife habitat; wilderness areas; archaeological, paleontological, and historical sites; and other natural heritage values.

The BLM came into its role almost by default. In the late 19th century, the creation of the first national parks and forests reserves signaled a shift from a congressional policy of transferring the ownership of lands from public to federal. Formed last among the land management units, the BLM came to manage land unclaimed-and considered less valuable by the Parks and Forest Service. The BLM was created in 1946 through the merger of two agencies: the General Land Office and the Grazing Service. The General Land Office was created by Congress in 1812 to oversee the survey and disposal of public domain lands ceded to the federal government by the 13 original colonies or acquired through treaty or purchase. The Grazing Service, initially known as the Division of Grazing, was established in accordance with the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act to manage those public domain lands deemed chiefly valuable for grazing, pending their final disposal. This act delegated much decision-making power to local grazing boards, and the Grazing Service was intended to resemble more of a temporary custodian of the public rangelands than a powerful agency. Its existence was characterized by conflict with the Forest Service over control of grazing on the public domain and with Congress and the western cattle industry over the setting of grazing fees. In addition, because it was formed through an executive reorganization, the BLM operated on insecure foundations and under a maze of confusing and sometimes conflicting regulations, until 1976 when Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), sometimes called the BLM Organic Act. The BLM is still hampered by these initial weaknesses and a per-acre budget much lower than the other federal land management agencies.

Equipping the BLM

FLPMA declared that the public lands would be retained in federal ownership; superceded and rationalized many existing public land laws and regulations; officially gave authority and direction for managing the public lands to the BLM; and gave the agency its multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate. It eliminated the grazing boards and set up a system of federal grazing regulations, 43 CFR 4100, to provide uniform guidance for administration of grazing on the public lands exclusive of Alaska; this strengthened BLM’s ability to regulate grazing and placed greater emphasis on maintaining or improving the ecological health of public rangelands. It also directed the BLM to inventory the lands it managed for wilderness characteristics, as the 1964 Wilderness Act had directed the National Park Service and the Forest Service. With this mandate, the BLM was finally equipped to manage the public lands. Even so, controversy follows agency management decisions, especially in ongoing debates about the role of grazing on public lands versus conservation, recreation, and other land uses. Critics continue to argue that the agency remains subject to “capture” by narrow interests, though the increasingly enlarged mandate of BLM has made such controversies more complex and multi-sided.

The BLM has organized into a Washington office with a politically appointed director and 12 state offices, each with a state director. Each state is organized into field offices, whose managers report to the state directors. In 2001, the BLM created a National Landscape Conservation System to administer the national monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, National Historic Trails, and Wild and Scenic Rivers under its jurisdiction.


  1. Bureau of Land Management, www.blm.gov;
  2. N. Clarke and D. C. McCool, Staking Out The Terrain: Power And Per]ormance Among Natural Resource Agencies, (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1996);
  3. Debra Donohue, The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock ]rom Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity (University of Oklahoma Press, 1999);
  4. Christopher McGrory Klyza, Who Controls the Public Lands? Mining, Forestry, and Grazing Policies, 1870-1990 (The University of North Carolina Press, 1996);
  5. Karen R. Merrill, Public Lands and Political Meaning: Ranchers, the Government, and the Property Between Them (University of California Press, 2002);
  6. Carol Hardy Vincent, Federal Land Management Agencies: Background on Land and Resources Management, Congressional Research Service Report RL32393 (Library of Congress, 2004).

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