Contributed by Paul Di Salvo
Editor’s Note: Public lands advocacy is an issue that is important no matter where you grew up in the United States or how old you may be. The next two articles demonstrate that people of different generations can learn from and mentor one another, while sharing an appreciation for public lands. Both Mike Ferguson and Molly O’Grady are members of the Public Lands Foundation and have participated in PLF’s Student Congress. Mike and Molly have worked together to take the lessons learned from the retired generation of BLM managers and ignite a spark in the next generation of young professionals.
I recently got a chance to talk with Mike Ferguson, who is currently a Board Member of the Public Lands Foundation (PLF). PLF is a national membership organization that advocated and works to keep public lands in public hands. The organization mostly focuses on lands that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. More information about PLF can be found at http://www.publicland.org.
Prior to retiring in 2009, Mike Ferguson had worked in nine or ten different jobs with BLM throughout the United States. Most notable, Mike had spent time in the BLM office in Washington, D.C. and as Area Manager for the Bishop BLM area in east-central California from 1989-1992. While Mike was only in Bishop for a few years, the valley and its natural resources really made an impression on him.
Paul: How did you first stumble across the Bishop BLM Area?
Mike: When I was nine years old, I went on a vacation with my family. We went to Mono Lake and spent some time in Bodie. It was really a fun vacation. Years later, when I started working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), I started hearing about some of the prime locations where BLM employees liked to work, where once you got there you never left, and one of those was Bishop. I remembered back to when I was a little kid about how it was a cool place, but still didn’t know too much about it. I worked in Bakersfield, California in the early 1980s, which was the district office that included four resource areas, one of which was Bishop, so I got to know some of the resources, people, and programs. I began to understand why people liked the area so much and decided that if I ever got the opportunity to work in Bishop, I would take it. In 1989, I was offered the Area Manager job and it didn’t take very long for me to decide that Bishop is where I wanted to go.
So did you decide to take the job in Bishop because of people or the resources or both?
Well, it was a combination, but was more heavily weighted towards the resources. Owen’s Valley is just a spectacular place. Sitting on the valley floor between 14,000-foot peaks on either side of the valley is just phenomenal. The nice thing is that it isn’t overrun by people due to being landlocked by federal land and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, so there wasn’t much risk that Bishop was ever going to become a big city. There’s a lot of advantages to a small town, such as getting to know the people in the community that are using the public lands. Back then, it was really the local community that drove the planning process for the surrounding public lands, rather than Washington, D.C.
What are the primary land uses of the Bishop BLM Area and what do you feel are the most important?
Part of the attraction of the Bishop BLM Area is that there is a lot of stuff going on. One of the highest profile uses is outdoor recreation, such as off-highway vehicles, dirt bikes, mountain bikes, skiing, hiking, nature photography, fishing, hunting, etc. The Alabama Hills are the backdrop for a lot of the old Western movies. There was also some grazing, wildlife habitat, gold mining, geothermal development, and sage grouse protection. But I’m not sure how to answer what was the most important part because I don’t think any of those were really any more important than the other. What was important was trying to find the right kind of balance between society’s values, the resource values, and making decisions that didn’t preclude future uses or preserving different values. It was more about finding a balance than one use being more important than another.
In your role as Area Manager from 1989-1992, what were your land management priorities and how did you achieve those?
In the 1980’s, BLM had this big push to do resource management plans in all of its planning areas Bureau-wide. When I first went to Bishop, we were just getting started on putting together a resource management plan. That’s a big job and involves a lot of controversy. There are places where the formulation of those plans has dragged on for years without resolution. I had to give the most attention in my job to getting the resource management plan completed. Another role was to build collaboration and work with the local community on what their wants and needs were and trying to figure out solutions for how to accommodate all the interests. My third role was to protect the Area’s resources. There was a lot of vandalism going on at the time, particularly at Native American sites. My office tried to help educate the community on why it is not good to rifle through Native American burial sites, take the remains home, and put them in their living room. There were also trespassing and theft issues on areas with mineral materials. The way to solve these issues was through the resource management plan. In the plan, we tried to implement new and pragmatic ideas. During the planning process, we had previously made a lot of very defined and tight decisions, such as specific grazing season dates, numbers of livestock, and pasture rotation. When you make these types of decisions, it forces you to revisit the land use plan to make adjustments and focus on the specific uses of public lands. This gets people talking about their own biases about “good” and “bad” uses. Instead, in this plan, we tried to look at resource conditions that people wanted. If someone said they wanted us to remove livestock grazing, well, why is that? Is it because they feel we are disrupting elk habitat? Well, ok. If we can provide Tule Elk habitat or sage grouse habitat at X level to support the population, do you really care about allowing grazing if the grazing will not impede wildlife habitat availability or condition? From these discussions, we started implementing the concept of Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) that was originally a wilderness management concept. We used this in our planning processes to describe the desired future conditions that we wanted to achieve. While not a lot of people had heard of the phrase, essentially, we were conducting performance-based grazing, which seems to be a buzz word right now.
The Bishop BLM Area is surrounded by the Inyo National Forest, contains 12 Wilderness Study Areas, two Wilderness Areas, several Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and natural resource extraction areas. How did you work collaboratively to manage for all these types of land uses?
I was really lucky because we worked with at least two National Forests, the Toiyabe and the Inyo, which encompassed four or five different Ranger Districts. The District Rangers and the Forest Supervisors were terrific people. Every single one of them had the same kinds of ideas about looking at the surrounding community and valley as a whole and making broader decisions. BLM and Forest Service agreed on which pieces they would each manage and not compete with each other. For instance, if there is particular plant people are interested in, such as the bristlecone pine that 99% resides on Forest Service land and 1% is on BLM land, then there isn’t a need for a lot of restrictions on the portion that resides on BLM land because the Forest Service is managing the species to make sure it is able to thrive on their lands. BLM did a lot of work with Forest Service, California Department of Fish and Game, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. One of the reasons this was a great time to work in the area was that there were great personalities to work with in the different agencies. The Washington, D.C. BLM office was pushing for coordinated resource management plans that focused on interagency cooperation and multiple land uses. All of the local leaders bought into this idea of coordinated resource management plans and were focused on trying to find solutions rather than a cookie-cutter decision. We all got along, which was the key to making this a good experience. In those days, the BLM Field Managers were the ones in charge and making the decisions, rather than regional or D.C. leadership. That isn’t happening today. There was trust in local managers who were seeing things on the ground in real time to make the decisions, rather than people on the east coast.
Related to this idea, Secretary Zinke is looking to move the Department of Interior agency headquarters to the West. Do you think this will help or hinder?
I actually think that would be a tremendous hindrance. One of the advantages of having a staff in Washington, D.C. is that there are people who understand what is going on in the field and in a moment’s notice can go up on the Hill and answer some questions to Congressmen or Senators, or can run upstairs to the Secretary’s Office and inform them what BLM activities are really like. If you move those people out to the West, it becomes a long hallway. I don’t see this move as something that would prevent the decisions from still being made in Washington, D.C. and they would be made with less information. This doesn’t even count the expense of moving that many people. I think a better solution is to allow BLM State Directors to be the field generals.
How has your role as a Board Member for the Public Lands Foundation allowed you to continue to advocate for stewardship of BLM lands?
I joined the Public Lands Foundation (PLF) five to six years before I retired. I knew George Lea who started the organization in 1987. I like the notion that once people retire, they stay involved in natural resource issues and public land management and try to be advocates for professional stewardship of public lands to keep public lands public. Shortly after retiring, I was made a part of PLF’s Board of Directors and have been a Board Member ever since. One of the primary focuses of PLF is to engage today’s youth in the outdoors. In BLM, a lot of people were hired in the 1970s and 1980s, and we haven’t hired a lot of people in a long time. We are losing our job pool and expertise. There is also a general lack of understanding of public land issues from the public, but more specifically from the youth. One of our major projects is trying to get youth engaged in coming up with recommendations for public land management to present to the Director of BLM and the Secretary of the Interior from a youth perspective which they might not otherwise hear from. As a Board Member, I formulate letters to the Hill, environmental groups, BLM, Department of Interior, and other groups on things PLF feels should be considered. PLF weighs in on the issues, give our support, and provide testimony. One of the special projects that I have been working on is the George Lea Scholarship (named after the founder of PLF). Every year we give two $5,000 scholarships to students who are studying fields related to natural resources or public policy. It is really neat to see the applicants who apply, why they are interested in public lands, what they have already accomplished, and what their future goals are. It has been especially great to help out students who are struggling to complete their degree due to financial difficulties. We also provide scholarship winners an all-expense paid trip to participate in one of our board meetings and an annual BLM meeting. We also set up a day for them to shadow a BLM employee and build relationships within BLM. The other big project I have been working on is the Student Congress that we put on every two years. We advertise across the country for students who have a connection to public lands and natural resources, such as lawyers, computer scientists, and typical natural resource students. It is a competitive process and we select 20 to 25 students to come together and focus on a specific piece of legislation or a specific issue. After doing a bunch of pre-work and readings, the students come together for four days and try to understand some of the issues facing BLM and come up with a set of recommendations that we take to the Secretary of the Interior and the BLM Director. The first Student Congress was focused on the 200th anniversary of the General Lands Office (the precursor to BLM). PLF didn’t really know what to expect from this first Student Congress, but what the students came up with was really unbelievably great and we decided we needed to keep doing it. Subsequent Student Congress topics were on the 40th anniversary of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. The things that the students come up with are amazing and you walk away from the meetings thinking “Wow, these kids are really amazing and there is hope that the next generation will carry the flag.”
Feral swine or wild horses? I’m sure Bishop BLM area had both.
They’re both issues in different parts of public lands. The one that gets the notoriety is the horses and burros. Wild horses and burros are also the issue that has the most misinformation and people dealing with emotions, so it is a whole lot tougher. Wild pigs are localized and there aren’t too many people that would support a “Wild and Free-roaming Pig Act”. If the question means “would I rather manage wild pigs or wild horses?”, I’d take the feral swine any day.
Cover photos courtesy of Mike Ferguson and Dave Toussaint