A photo of Book Cliffs (also called Roan Cliffs), oil shale rocks in the Piceance Basin of western Colorado.
Book Cliffs (also called Roan Cliffs), oil shale rocks located in the Piceance Basin of western Colorado.

BLM Planners: A Strange New Breed

By John Singlaub

When it was passed in 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) initiated a number of revolutionary changes at the BLM.  Suddenly, the Bureau was faced with the prospect of the long-term retention and management of the public lands under multiple-use management and sustained yield.  Budgets grew to accommodate the broad new requirements of FLPMA, and a wide variety of “-ologists” were hired to supplement the range conservationists, realty specialists, geologists, and mining engineers already employed by the BLM.  These hires later became known as the post-1976 “FLPMA Boomers.”

None of these new characters were stranger to the BLM than the small cadre of professional planners hired to implement the requirements of FLPMA section 202, “Land Use Planning.”  They helped develop new planning rules, finalized in 1979, that called for comprehensive, systematic plans, known as resource management plans (RMPs), for the public lands.  These plans were intended to mesh with the new planning rules being implemented by the Forest Service and were to consider the plans and policies of local, tribal, and state governments.  They also required intense public participation and compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) planning and decisionmaking process, which required the preparation of environmental impact statements (EISs).  The plans eventually became known as RMPs/EISs.

I was hired fresh out of graduate school as a community planner for the BLM’s Craig District in Colorado.  I arrived in October 1979, only days after the final RMP planning rules were approved as a replacement for the pre-FLPMA management framework plans, which were not NEPA-compliant.  What seemed to me on first reading to be a rather straightforward process based on traditional land use planning concepts was being received by my BLM colleagues with some concern and more than a little trepidation.  This was exacerbated by the fact that the Kremmling Resource Area, part of the Craig District, had been selected to complete a “pilot RMP” to test the new regulations.  My assurances that this was no big deal and that it would be fun to get out in front of the rest of the BLM and showcase the Craig District got me a few strange looks.

I worked with Ade Neisius, the RMP team leader in Kremmling, to quickly come up with a schedule, intermediate project steps, and a commitment from the team and from management to move forward with the pilot plan.  We met periodically with the other pilot RMP teams from throughout the BLM, shared ideas and stories, and ultimately completed the plan, albeit with the predictable delays and budget challenges we encounter in all of our work.  Throughout the process, I was thrilled at the flexibility and support I found from managers throughout the BLM in exploring new approaches and trying out new ideas.  District Manager Marv Pearson, Area Manager Roger Zortman, State Director Dale Andrus, and the state office staff, including Planning Branch Chief Fran Cherry and Environmental Branch Chief Elaine Zielinski, provided the support that made the RMP a success.

I soon found myself as the team leader for the Piceance Basin RMP in Meeker, Colorado.  Driven by BLM Director Bob Burford’s interest in developing oil shale in the Piceance Basin, we began getting support from the Washington Office, including from Minerals Chief Monte Jordan.  On one of his many visits to Meeker, I asked Jordan if we could have the funds for a geographic information system (GIS) to facilitate development of alternatives for the RMP.  Before I knew it, he arranged for us to use a mainframe Data General computer, and in early 1981, we were embarking on the first GIS-supported RMP in BLM’s history, using what now seems like quite primitive GIS tools.

As the pilot RMPs were completed, RMPs/EISs were spreading throughout the BLM.  The Washington Office recognized the need to share the experiences of the pilots and to develop common guidance so that each team could avoid plowing new ground.  In 1984, Planning and Environmental Coordination Chief David Williams directed Ken Harrison and me to develop training programs for the field offices with the help of what was then the Phoenix Training Center.  Although we were getting better results when several team members could attend the training, travel costs were prohibitive.  Ken and I began going out to BLM offices to train onsite, focusing on local needs, concerns, and resource issues.  This proved to be an excellent strategy.  By 1986, the BLM had gained enough momentum and RMP experience that we could pass the baton to a new generation of planners.  And you know, being a planner wasn’t as strange then as it was when I first started in 1979!

John Singlaub worked for the BLM as a planner and manager in Colorado; Washington, DC; New Mexico; and Oregon.  He moved to Carson City, Nevada, as the district manager in 1994 and retired from the BLM in 2003.