I have come to the realization that land management is dependent on people management. To accomplish important conservation and resource management objectives, a thorough understanding of the science involved is essential. But land management on any significant scale is impossible without having the skill to engage people who don’t have the years of education that people in the BLM (and the Forest Service, Park Service, private conservation organizations, non-profit activist groups, etc.) often take for granted. Especially in the public sector, ecological expertise means nothing without the political skill to convince the public that we’re all working towards the same goal (as much as possible).
When I worked for the BLM in the heart of the Mojave, I was not confronted with this seemingly basic realization. The Needles office manages millions of continuous acres in one of the most sparsely populated areas in the nation. Neighbors are few and far between. But here in Arcata, with fragmented and dispersed BLM properties, it’s clear that the BLM does its best work when the neighbors are happy. A happy neighbor may be helpful. Heck, even Jesus recommended loving thy neighbor. And sometimes all it takes to please the public is a listening ear, a small price to pay to achieve work in an agency that manages 13% of the surface of the United States but can struggle on projects of 5, 50, or 500 acres. To vaguely quote my mentor, “A project can be a marathon. Too often people are unwilling to start running due to an argument about what will happen at mile 25.”
To mitigate the struggle, it’s also essential to be efficient with time and money that’s too often pressed. As the forestry projects are about to start, we’ve been conscious about focusing the contracted labor on areas where we’ll get the most “bang for the buck”. We don’t want to be “spinning our wheels” when we are the stewards of government funds. Adequate funding is hard to come by, so it’s important to make the most of it when it’s available. The ideal treatment nudges the land onto a course where future human intervention is unnecessary.
For a guy prone to periods of pessimism on the fate of humans and the environment, a certain project in particular has been unexpectedly inspiring. Our office is working towards a prairie restoration on an historic prairie that has become an overgrown Douglas Fir patch. There is some commercial potential of trees in the patch, but it’s mostly stuff that is traditionally unmarketable. However, a biomass-generated electric plant has recently opened in the area and they are interested in the shade-grown, scrawny trees that the timber industry has long considered junk. The BLM is selling these trees as biomass to help cover some of the costs of the prairie restoration. And as technology improves in the biomass conversion industry (eg. torrefaction and gasification), this will increasingly become an economically viable option. When the means to an end (habitat restoration) involve restoring energy independence to a small rural community, I’m on board.