Photo of people around a table at the BLM Summit.
Group discussions at the BLM Summit.  Image from a VHS video. (BLM)

Let’s Make Dust, Not Eat Dust:
How the 1994 BLM Summit Launched a New Strategic Direction

By Chip Calamaio, with Deb Rawhouser, Larry Hamilton, and Denise Meridith

Even as it was happening, we all felt that we were part of something historic.

It started in 1993 when, during his short tenure as BLM Director, Jim Baca committed the BLM to the principles of ecosystem management and kicked off a major strategic planning effort.  Preliminary information was circulated, but the coffee table buzz was, “What does ecosystem management really mean?”

As this effort was ramping up, Baca asked Deputy Director Denise Meridith, “So when do we get all the managers together to work on this?”  “It was a pretty radical idea at the time,” Meridith remembers.  “Jim wanted to make a lasting difference and use a from-the-ground-up approach.  We changed the course of where BLM was going and we’re still on that course.”

In April 1994, the BLM Summit was held at Incline Village, Nevada, in a hotel on the cold, windswept shores of Lake Tahoe.  “I think the location was chosen to make the point that we weren’t just out on some government boondoggle.  We were there to do serious work,” recalls Summit Chairman Larry Hamilton. 

In addition to 410 BLM managers, more than 100 stakeholders participated in the weeklong event.  These stakeholders represented members of state and local governments, environmentalists, recreational users, members of the oil and gas industry, the timber companies, and the media (including the editor of “High Country News,” Ed Marston).

Project Manager Deb Rawhouser remembers, “We even had the track on customer service facilitated by one of our stakeholders.  It was the first time our managers all heard the same keynotes, got the same messages, and worked together on BLM’s strategic direction.”

With Baca’s departure, Mike Dombeck had become acting director.  Dombeck kicked things off with his vision of where BLM should be heading and challenged everyone with his “BLM Vision Pledge Cards.”  He emphasized that BLM should be known for quality, reliability, and service, saying that it was time to “get back to basics” and that we should “make dust, not eat dust.”

General sessions were held outside in a large vinyl tent that was surrounded by snowbanks and warmed by portable heaters.  Former Arizona State Director Elaine Zielinski remembers, “When Secretary Babbitt gave his breakfast keynote speech, it was so cold that we took the tablecloths off and huddled under them to stay warm!”

In addition to the frigid general sessions, managers and stakeholders participated in smaller group sessions to hammer out ways to implement an ecosystem management approach based on the five main summit themes:  to maintain healthy ecosystems, promote collaborative leadership, diversify our workforce, improve how we do business, and enhance customer service.

A lot of things we’d all been hearing about suddenly became very real.

After the Tahoe session, the summit team and what was then the Phoenix Training Center created “Mini-Summit” packages complete with videos and exercises.  Many states held Mini-Summit events to get their workforce and constituents up to speed on the reengineered BLM.  Hamilton said, “The administration engaged career managers and rewarded them for working with employees and customers in a much more collaborative and professional manner.” 

Recommendations from these events were provided to Dombeck.  As a result, BLM’s “Blueprint for the Future” was released in September 1994.  It reflected the five summit themes and detailed the BLM’s future goals.

Now, more than 20 years later, it is clear that today’s BLM was shaped by the paradigm shifts and the themes that emerged from the 1994 Summit, as reflected by robust public involvement in our planning process, our changing workforce, our modernized business systems, the variety of ways we provide service to our customers, and our management of America’s resources on a landscape level.

Yes, since the 1994 Summit, the BLM has truly made some dust.

Chip Calamaio started in 1985 as the BLM’s instructional television specialist.  Over the years, he has been influential in creating the BLM Satellite Network, establishing the National Training Center facility, and developing BLM’s numerous distance learning delivery methods.

Currently the associate state director of BLM Arizona, Deb Rawhouser began her BLM career in Idaho, specializing in low-impact river recreation.  She has served in California and Arizona, at the National Operations Center, National Interagency Fire Center, and in Washington, DC, where she was the division chief for decision support, planning, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Larry Hamilton retired from the BLM in 2006 after serving as the national director for the Office of Fire and Aviation.  He was also the state director of Montana and the Dakotas, associate state director of the Eastern States Office, and director of the National Training Center.

Denise Meridith, former Arizona state director, retired after a 29-year career in the BLM.  She served in six states and was deputy director of the BLM in Washington, DC, during the Clinton administration.