A Director’s Perspective:  2007-2009

By James L. Caswell

On a cold January afternoon in 2007, my phone rang.  Assistant Interior Secretary Stephen Allred was calling to inquire about my interest in becoming director of the Bureau of Land Management.  We were well acquainted and had both worked for Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne when he was the governor of Idaho.  The prospect was exciting but daunting.  The last thing I wanted was to be merely a placeholder during the waning days of the Bush administration.  On the other hand, how could I turn down an opportunity to serve as director of the very agency where I had begun my career exactly 40 years before? 

Photo of James L. Caswell
James L. Caswell was the Director of the BLM from 2007 to 2009.
In August I was sworn in as the BLM’s 16th director.  During the confirmation process, I immersed myself in the issues, priorities, and initiatives of the BLM and the Department and talked with people to develop a focused agenda for my time as director.  I went to Washington with three goals:  1) complete the initiatives and priorities underway; 2) reach out to employees and build on their ingenuity, creativity, and enthusiasm; and 3) institutionalize the Healthy Lands Initiative.  Even with this clarity, I knew it would be difficult to stay on course in the dynamic environment of Washington.  I would need to be flexible and adapt to new challenges.

New leadership often brings about new initiatives and policies and, in many situations, reorganizations, including executive personnel moves.  I felt strongly that such efforts would be counterproductive, so I resisted making those kinds of changes.  Instead, I embarked on a transition process to build relationships and establish credibility with the Executive Leadership Team and the workforce so that we could focus on achieving our most important initiatives and priorities.

A pressing national priority was to implement the Energy Policy Act of 2005.  In 2007, oil prices climbed to more than $100 per barrel for the first time, and the nation was looking for opportunities to increase production from all sources—renewable and nonrenewable.  The act came with many mandates for the BLM, most with required timeframes.  We made major revisions in conventional onshore oil and gas regulations and leasing and permitting procedures; we updated our best management practices and established oil and gas pilot offices to improve coordination, environmental analyses, transparency, and timeliness.  This approach worked so well that we established renewable energy pilot offices by Secretarial Order.  We also revised geothermal regulations and completed or initiated wind, solar, and geothermal programmatic environmental impact statements.  In addition, regulatory advances were made in oil shale, tar sands, coal leasing, and energy right-of-way corridors.

Competing demands for public land uses and resources were at an all-time high during this period and the BLM faced tough challenges in carrying out its multiple-use mission.  From these struggles and the public acrimony surrounding natural resource management, the Healthy Lands Initiative was born.  This is a long-term collaborative effort to strategically identify, conserve, and restore high-priority aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems while providing for managed development.  The concept was in its infancy when I became director, and I assumed a direct leadership role in it.  My vision was to fundamentally change how the BLM defines its land-use planning areas, selects priority conservation and restoration projects, and refines monitoring protocols to facilitate adaptive management.  We made tremendous progress in institutionalizing this approach Bureauwide.  In fact, you will see this approach still being applied in the BLM today, even though it may not be called the Healthy Lands Initiative.  

While I was director, I started a director’s blog to connect directly with BLM employees, and it was an instant success.  Most issues employees raised fell into three categories:  1) workplace and workforce concerns, 2) managing our nation’s natural resources, and 3) BLM’s future.  I visited BLM offices all across the country and heard positive comments regarding the blog’s value.  I personally read every posting and used the feedback in policy decisions.  I regret not having had more time as director to work on more of these ideas.

Much of my time centered around an issue I was not even aware of when I became the BLM director, but one that has been debated for more than 30 years.  The effort to give BLM lands a formal name dates back to at least the 1970s when the Federal Land Policy and Management Act was passed.  The Public Lands Foundation brought it to my attention, and after looking into it, I became convinced of its merit.  I initiated a yearlong process of collaboration with the Office of the Secretary, the Congress, and the administration to finalize a proposal.  On December 16, 2008, Secretary Kempthorne signed Secretarial Order No. 3280, designating BLM-managed public lands as the “National System of Public Lands.”  This provided, for the first time, an official name for the more than 245 million acres under BLM management.

I left Washington, DC, pleased with our accomplishments and satisfied that I did my best to meet my personal goals, advance the administration’s agenda, and connect with employees in furthering the BLM’s multiple-use mission.  It was also my honor and privilege to serve Secretary Kempthorne, Assistant Secretary Allred, the dedicated employees of the BLM, and the American people.

James L. (Jim) Caswell served as the BLM director until 2009.  Previously, he was administrator of the State of Idaho’s Office of Species Conservation.  Jim spent 33 years in federal service, working for the BLM, Bonneville Power Administration, and Forest Service.  He is a Vietnam veteran and graduate of Michigan State University.