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Spokane, A District at the Crossroads Oregon/Washington BLM



Spokane, A District at the Crossroads

Meet the BLM's Spokane District,
25 years in the making.

story by Scott Pavey
photos by BLM staff

"The District is at a crossroads," said Spokane District Manager Robert Towne at an all-employee meeting in October 2008. "The major land exchanges and acquisitions that the District has been implementing over the past couple of decades have been completed. Now it's time to focus on managing the lands we have acquired." On April 20, 2009, the District celebrated reaching this milestone, recognizing it as "the Spokane District, 25 years in the making."

There has been a Government Land Office in Spokane since 1883. But the BLM's Spokane District today is the result of some very recent transformations.

Since the late 1980s, the BLM's Spokane District has prioritized efforts to consolidate public lands – mostly in eastern Washington – through a series of land exchanges and direct acquisitions. As a result, the geography of the public lands in Washington State has changed dramatically in the past 20 years.

Since 1987, the National System of Public Lands in the State of Washington has increased by almost 150,000 acres while over 32,000 acres of public land was conveyed to private ownership. Today the District manages 448,000 acres – with 182,000 or 41 percent – almost half of the total BLM land in Washington State – acquired during the past 20 years.

The District now stands at the crossroads Towne mentioned and looks to the future to determine where the management of these lands and resources should lead.

How did we get here?

Up through the 1970s, the BLM's policy was to divest ownership of all Federal public lands in the State of Washington. But in 1980, at the height of the Sage Brush Rebellion (a movement to give control over Federal lands to the states and local authorities), Washington voters told BLM they wanted public lands in their state to remain under federal management.

In the 1980 general election, the State put a measure on the ballot asking voters if the state constitution should "be amended to provide that the state no longer disclaim all rights to unappropriated federal public lands." Approximately 60 percent of the people and the majority in every county voted no, signaling to BLM that there was strong support for continued federal management of their public lands.

In response to this vote, the Director of the BLM approved a proposal by the District to begin a process of consolidating BLM lands. At this time back in 1980, lands managed by the District consisted mostly of small parcels scattered across eastern Washington - most of which lacked public or administrative access.

Spokane, A District at the Crossroads
photo by BLM Staff

Forging a "New" District

With this new direction in hand along with new District Manager Joe Buesing, who arrived in 1983, the stage was set for change in the Spokane District. "The first step was to develop a Resource Management Plan to provide direction for accomplishing the consolidation," Buesing said.

For the next several years, the District staff focused on their Resource Management Plan (RMP), and a Record of Decision was signed by the Oregon/Washington State Director in 1987.

Although the RMP provided management direction for use and protection of all BLM-administered resources on public lands in eastern Washington, the main emphasis of the plan was on land tenure and consolidation.

Just as the District was completing the RMP and preparing for implementation, a major setback occurred when the opportunity for exchange of federal lands was put on hold by a court injunction.

In 1981, BLM had begun a major national review of classifications and withdrawals of public lands for the purpose of removing or revoking those that were no longer warranted. In 1985, the National Wildlife Federation challenged this review and revocation program in court.

The US District Court issued an injunction halting the review and suspended related reclassifications and withdrawal revocations. A large amount of the public lands in Washington were encumbered with classifications or withdrawals, many of which were no longer justified, but could not be removed due to the Court injunction, As a result, although the Spokane District completed the RMP in 1987, most of the lands proposed for exchange could not be made available for disposal or conveyance.

The BLM appealed the US District Court decision, and in 1990, the US Supreme Court reversed the decision, lifting the injunction.

Finally, in 1991, more than a decade after the citizens of Washington had told BLM that they wanted continued federal management of public lands in their state, the Spokane District was truly able to begin the process of consolidation.

Transformation through Cooperation

Although there was direction from the people of Washington and approval from the Director of the BLM to begin consolidating federal public lands in the state, little funding was available to accomplish this task. Thus from 1991 until completion of the most recent transactions in 2008, the Spokane District stretched its limited budget, partnered with organizations like The Nature Conservancy, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and the Washington Department of Natural Resources, and worked with an independent exchange facilitator to orchestrate major exchanges which would forever change the landscape of eastern Washington.

Working with these partners afforded the opportunity to block up large parcels of high value habitat by acquisition of lands adjacent to those owned or managed by The Nature Conservancy and WDFW.

The Changing Face of the District

Lincoln County is one example of how much ownership changed. In 1984, there were only about 7,400 acres of BLM in this county. Today the District manages almost 80,000 acres in Lincoln County.

Douglas County is another example; in 1984, the District managed only 37,700 acres but manages 54,300 acres there today.

With the help of a facilitator, the District was able to participate in exchanges in these and other counties involving as many as 20 participants.

As the increase in Federal lands in some counties began to accumulate, some county commissioners expressed concern regarding the potential loss of tax revenue. However, they found that revenues from payment-in-lieu of taxes actually exceeded the amount they had previously received in taxes from these primarily agricultural lands.

Much of the acquired lands had been heavily grazed by livestock for many years. While some of the previous owners and ranchers managed to stay in business through grazing leases on the now Federal lands, the District was able to simultaneously restore wildlife habitat and wetlands by reducing the amount of grazing that had previously occurred or changing grazing rotations.

Within a short time, the success of the initial land exchanges began to build momentum and support. Backed by county commissioners, environmental groups, and state agencies, the District was eventually able to acquire Land and Water Conservation Funds and make direct purchases of some lands with high value wildlife habitat.

The last of the major assembled land exchanges concluded on October 22, 2008. This marked the end of the era of major land consolidation by the Spokane District, and the start of managing the retained and acquired lands for present and future generations.


Islands?! In the BLM's Spokane District?

Spokane, A District at the Crossroads
photo by Matt Christenson

Many people are unaware that the Spokane District manages 800 acres of public lands in the San Juan Islands, an archipelago in Northwestern Washington at the entrance to Puget Sound.

Some of these lands have always been in Federal ownership while others were acquired by the District through direct purchase and still others reverted to BLM management when the U.S. Coast Guard relinquished sites previously withdrawn for lighthouse facilities.

In the late 1970s, the Washington Department of Parks and Recreation asked the BLM to grant them a lease to manage some lands in the islands as State Parks. However, local public and several environmental groups were against managing these lands as parks. They felt that, with the existing national park and other state parks on the San Juan Islands, there was enough opportunity for recreational visitors. The locals and environmental groups preferred that the BLM manage the lands to preserve their natural condition and provide for wildlife habitat. The BLM supported the interests of the locals and environmental groups when, in 1990, it designated two of the largest BLM holdings on the islands as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern to preserve their natural character.

This was one of the first times that the Spokane District had an opportunity to work with environmental groups who were mostly based and interested in western Washington. As a result of its willingness to work with these groups on the San Juan Islands, the Spokane District gained support for most of the major land exchanges in eastern Washington And in general, the Spokane District has established a congenial relationship by listening to the concerns of conservation advocacy organizations regarding management of BLM land on both sides of the state.

Vision for the District's Future

Upon reaching the crossroads, the Spokane leadership team realized that a direction to move forward was needed to help guide future management and organization of the District. In October 2008, the team began developing a vision for the organization.

Robert Towne discussed next steps with BLM staff at an all-employee meeting in Spokane. "The vision belongs to all of us," Towne said as he solicited suggestions for improvement. Since then, the leadership team has begun to develop a strategy to achieve the vision and also plans to involve a number of other members from the District in the process. One of their main components will be a revision of the RMP that's scheduled to begin in 2010.

Just as the BLM employees in Spokane look forward to this future, so will all Washington State residents. It's an exciting time for the public lands in their communities.

Learn more about the BLM in Washington State - to include the new national monument at the San Juan Islands!