WASHINGTON — New Mexico rancher Alonso Gallegos remembers a time not too long ago when renewing a grazing permit with the Bureau of Land Management was just a matter of filling out paperwork.
This year, renewing 10-year permits to graze cattle or sheep on the federal land BLM manages is much more complicated. There are environmental impact studies to be done, public comments to be gathered, resource management plans to be consulted.
"It's a lot of changes when we've grazed this land forever," said Gallegos, who runs 96 head of cattle on 6,000 acres of BLM land near Santa Fe on a ranch that's been in his family since before there was a BLM.
"Something's happening here lately that's a change," agreed Tommy Caniglia, who manages the U-Cross ranch in the arid, rugged Arizona back country between Phoenix and Prescott. "I think the BLM is under tremendous pressure from the masses of Phoenix, the recreational people. They want this area."
These are days of dramatic changes at the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for about 264 million acres in the West--11% of the nation's land, an area almost as large as Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah combined.
Used to be that the BLM was not-so-jokingly dubbed the Bureau of Livestock and Mining, an agency unabashedly run by ranchers and miners for ranchers and miners. Nobody else was much interested in BLM land anyway--the dry, remote canyon bottoms and chaparral highlands were not considered spectacular or lush enough to be national forests or national parks.
"In the old days, BLM was basically a doormat," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "When something good came along, it went to the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Park Service. BLM was sort of viewed as mining and grazing because nobody ever suggested they should be anything else."
The West's population boom and the election of President Clinton changed that.
Two-thirds of Westerners now live within an hour's drive of BLM land. With more people came more demand for hiking, off-road vehicle use and hunting on BLM land, as well as more attention from environmentalists. With the Clinton administration came Babbitt and other managers with a view toward promoting recreation and conservation, as well as more stringent interpretations of environmental laws.
Babbitt and BLM director Tom Fry say they see BLM lands as places where coal mines and cattle can coexist with canoeists and conservation projects.
"We're the public lands of the future, a place where you can go get lost," Fry said. "BLM is becoming the open-space agency."
A prime example of the shift is Babbitt's choice of the BLM to manage the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. President Clinton created the national monument on 1.7 million acres of BLM land in 1996, blocking a proposed coal mine and angering Utah officials and some area residents.
National monuments have many of the same land-use restrictions as national parks, such as a ban on mining, but can allow grazing and off-road vehicle use.
The administration also is considering broad swaths of BLM land for increased restrictions--from designation as wilderness all the way up to declaration of new national monuments. Those areas include Perry Mesa, an area dotted with American Indian ruins near Caniglia's ranch; Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon; the Shivwits Plateau north of the Grand Canyon; and an area of canyons and Anasazi ruins in southwestern Colorado.
Elsewhere, the BLM is becoming more aggressive in enforcing environmental regulations, such as requiring more stringent environmental reviews before reissuing grazing permits.
The changes don't sit well with many ranchers.
"There are many folks, they're just absolutely overwhelmed and tired of dealing with the demands and the requirements and feel like packing it in," said Paul Frischknecht, who runs about 300 cattle and 6,000 sheep on 100,000 BLM acres in central Utah.
"If I take my sheep out there and there are restrictions on an animal control officer in applying his trade to catch a bad, sheep-killing coyote, what's the point? I might as well reduce my herds to what I can run on the private land or go and buy a private land ranch."
Some environmentalists, on the other hand, say they're worried the BLM might not be up to the task of becoming the Interior Department's newest conservation and recreation agency.
One is Jim Baca, who quit as head of the BLM in 1994. Baca, now mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., said most BLM employees resisted his efforts to raise grazing fees and strengthen environmental protections.
"They grew up in a culture that said that mining and logging and livestock was the reason they were there, so it was their job to make it very easy and inexpensive for those extractive industries to operate," Baca said. "It's not that they were evil; it's just that's what the agency was supposed to do for so long.