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Mail-Order Public Service

February 11, 1988

In this day of mail-order shopping, nearly everyone gets a stunning array of spiffy catalogues, from L. L. Bean to the Sharper Image. And now California residents are receiving a unique catalogue from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, a division of the Department of the Interior and the trustee of more than 340 million acres of land throughout the West. The BLM California Gift Catalogue invites prospective BLM "partners" to, in effect, buy a piece of their own rock.

It is one thing for private volunteer groups, like that formed independently by friends of Yosemite National Park, to solicit donations for special research and protection projects not normally found in the park's budget. It is something else for a federal agency to go begging for money to buy items that are supposed to be a routine part of BLM business.

In the catalogue, willing BLM partners are solicited to build an information kiosk for $2,000; clear brush for $4,850; plant trees, $1,430; get a campground toilet, $3,500 each; pave a parking area, $6,000, or buy a road grader, $170,000. A letter from a Sacramento public-relations firm promoting the BLM program in behalf of El Paso Natural Gas Co. adds: "Donations can range from volunteer time to clean up campgrounds, or $120 for a ton of baled hay to feed wild burros, or even $126,000 for an interpretive center at Soda Springs. Something for every budget."

The catalogue-browser does not get the toilet or ton of hay delivered to his home, of course. The money is a donation, and it goes to the federal government to assure "the continuation of wildlife, trail-building and recreation programs in these times of government belt-tightening." The catalogue, printed with funds contributed by corporate sponsors, tells readers that the bureau requires "a strong commitment from each of you" in order to maintain a high standard of quality in services to the public. Of course catalogue buyers also are taxpayers, and many thought that this was what their tax money was for.

There are a number of problems with this highly dubious approach--not the least of which is that, because of budget reductions that have been made by one arm of the Reagan Administration, another arm of the Reagan Administration has resorted to seeking handouts to do its job. The total budget of the BLM has been slashed from just less than $1 billion when President Reagan took office to about $750 million this year. In constant dollars that would be a reduction of roughly 50%.

Another problem with this approach is that the Bureau of Land Management traditionally has been criticized for selling the government's services at far less than the market value--fees to ranchers for grazing their livestock on public land and coal leases, for example--and being far too cozy with those who seek to exploit the public domain for profit.

Thus it is particularly inappropriate for the bureau's catalogue to be underwritten by corporate sponsors that have significant business dealings with the bureau. These sponsors primarily are utilities, energy and pipeline companies whose facilities run across BLM-controlled lands, mining firms and one public agency, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The primary responsibility of the Bureau of Land Management is to care for the lands in the public trust. That is not a duty that can be marketed by mail order. The Department of the Interior should cancel the ill-conceived BLM California Gift Catalogue at once.

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