Meet Bob Abbey

Preserving our public lands, protecting America's wild horses, & giving a little career advice to a young guitar picker named Jimmy Buffett...

Interview by Michael Campbell

Since our last issue, Northwest Passage's Michael Campbell had an opportunity to sit down with BLM Director Bob Abbey. "Previously, we chatted with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar," says Campbell. "And pretty soon folks in Oregon and Washington started asking us when we'd talk to the BLM's national director."

In their conversation, Bob Abbey looked back on his 34 years of public service to share some insights into where the BLM has been - and where it's headed. Not to mention a story from Abbey's early days on the University of Southern Mississippi campus where he had a few ideas for the future singer of "Margaritaville" and "Cheeseburgers in Paradise."

Northwest Passage (NWP): So, it turns out there's apparently a lot of very famous people to come from the University of Southern Mississippi: Jimmy Buffett, the Grand Ole Opry's Nan Kelly…

BLM Director Bob Abbey (BA): (Laughs) I did not know Nan Kelly was from the University of Southern Mississippi.

NWP: Yes, also University of Texas football coach Mac Brown and Hall of Fame punter Ray Guy.

BA: Ray Guy. Yep. I went to school with Ray Guy.

NWP: Some guy named Brett Favre, yourself. So what's in the water down there that you think would generate such star power and such a significant group of alumni?

BA: Well, I think every school and every university produces their share of people who have contributed back in some way to society and have represented their institutions well. You know, I look back on my days at the University of Southern Mississippi. It was a University that had at that time around thirteen thousand students, a lot of social change in the Deep South, an opportunity for us, in the end, to contribute to some of that change.

Now, quick story about Jimmy Buffett. When I was a freshman, Jimmy Buffett had graduated the semester before I came on as a freshman. But he was still hanging around the campus, and I remember going to the cafeteria on a daily basis during the fall semester at Southern Miss and there would be this person sitting on a bench and playing a guitar and singing. And I would often pass this individual routinely, and I used to think, "Wow, this guy really needs to get a job." That person turned out to be Jimmy Buffett.

NWP: Very funny.

BA: He went on and got a job.

NWP: Are there any leadership qualities, traits, or devices that you employed in your career early on that you have since dropped or altered?

BA: The most important lesson that I learned early, early on - whether it's with the state parks or just in our personal lives - I think a lot of our successes are built upon relationships. That you have to have a relationship in place before you can move forward and pursue common goals.

And that's been a lesson that I learned during my days in the fraternity at University of Southern Mississippi. It's the lessons that I learned as part of my short career with the state parks. It's certainly a lesson that I have learned in my career in the Bureau of Land Management. Again, one of the things that I have routinely said, and I truly believe this - as a nation, as citizens of this United States, we have a lot more in common than we have differences.

Unfortunately we can allow our differences to get in the way of moving forward and pursuing our common goals. We have got to change that as we move forward in pursuit of our common goals. We ought to continue to have a dialogue on our differences and to work towards resolving those differences. But sometimes this is not going to be accomplished overnight.

And let's move forward with the actions that are necessary to benefit the largest number of people that we serve and to stay focused. That's the other thing I think we as a Bureau of Land Management are challenged with.

What does the American public need from us as stewards of these public lands? We need to remain focused. We need to continue to pursue those things that we are accomplishing at the same time picking up and addressing some of the new challenges that we are facing on a daily basis.

NWP: Where do you see the future of the BLM's wild horse program heading?

BA: A lot of emotion comes with what people believe is necessary to protect our heritage and to make sure that these icons of America remain on these public lands. The Bureau of Land Management is committed to making sure that we have healthy and viable numbers of wild horses remaining on public lands certainly through not only in our lifetime but for generations to come.

I think the criticism that we hear from time to time is the misinformation campaigns portraying the Bureau as being anti-horse and having some sort of goal to remove all horses from the public lands.

But in reality, our goal is to make sure that these horses remain on these public lands. And in order to do so, they have to be managed. That includes maintaining a sustainable number of horses out there and to protect the resources that are the habitat that all species of wildlife are dependent upon and sometimes competing to get. So it is about sustainability, it's about managing for numbers, and it's about managing healthy rangelands. If we have healthy rangelands we will have healthy species for many or most wildlife, including wild horses.

Whether we will ever get to a common understanding or a general agreement I don't know. But I do think that's one of our most important programs. We have to maintain our focus and use the best available science and do a better job of communicating to all constituencies whom we serve about what it is that we are trying to accomplish and how we are taking steps to meet those goals which I hope are common among all of us.

Meet Bob Abbey
photo: Oregon BLM

But it's going to require changing some of the ways that we do business. For example, fertility control is going to have to be the primary tool that we use versus just gathering and holding the horses because we can't afford that. So fertility control is going to have to be the primary tool that we use.

NWP: I know you had the opportunity to come out to Oregon and Washington a couple of times. What's been the spot that you have been most impressed with visually, aesthetically, and from a recreation standpoint? What's the one place that you thought, "Boy, I have got to get back there."

BA: Well, you've got some tremendous resources in Oregon and Washington. The Pacific Northwest is one of the most beautiful areas in the United States. You know every region has its beauty. Every region has its importance. The Pacific Northwest has some outstanding resources whether it's wild and scenic rivers, lighthouses, or forests. You have a diversity of resources in that state that many states don't have, and, generally speaking, I think the BLM is doing a tremendous job there managing those resources in the way the public would like to see those resources managed.

But I'm kind of a river guy. I enjoy being on the river. I enjoy water recreation. I live on a lake down in Mississippi when I'm not in Washington, D.C. because I like water resources. And you in Oregon are blessed with some water resources whether it's bays or the ocean or rivers.

So every opportunity that I have in my spare time - and, quite frankly, I have little spare time today - I would like to be on the rivers.

NWP: One last question. What's the one place, anywhere in the U.S., where you and your family absolutely love to go to time and time again to either camp or recreate? What's that special place where you love to return?

BA: Well, again it goes back to both my wife and I enjoying canoeing. We have been on some of the rivers that the Bureau of Land Management is fortunate to manage on the behalf of the public. We have also participated in wild water rafting. But rather than pay a contractor to do rafting, we prefer to do our own canoeing. In some of those Class II and III rapids we can use our canoe and get out there.

So it's not necessarily the one place that we'd go back to, it's the one activity that we go back to and to different places. So it's an opportunity for us to catch up on our personal lives when we are out doing that kind of activity together instead of with a larger group.