Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Environment & Energy Daily
November 10, 2008

BLM employees, advocacy groups worked together on lands bill, docs show

Bureau of Land Management employees and environmental lobbyists coordinated to promote legislation that would recognize the National Landscape Conservation System as a permanent federal entity, documents obtained by E&E Daily show.

Environmentalists and BLM officials worked together on special events, exchanged draft policy memoranda and discussed job openings and candidates, according to e-mails, calendars and other documents related to the NLCS.

The Interior Department's inspector general is investigating links between BLM and the environmental groups on several fronts, including the lands bill, which is expected to reach the Senate floor during the lame-duck session next week. Investigators are trying to determine whether BLM employees violated the 1939 Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from lobbying Congress, a source familiar with the probe said.

IG spokesman Roy Kime acknowledged the investigation "into the way BLM employees have administered the National Landscape Conservation System," but he declined to elaborate.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), whose request for NLCS documents helped launch the investigation, says the bill should be sidelined until the investigation is complete. But environmentalists say the probe is a politically motivated attempt to sink the widely supported legislation.

"They have to go to a mud-ball," said Jim Lyon, senior vice president of conservation at the National Wildlife Federation.

At issue is assistance that environmentalists provided to BLM in the run-up to the House vote on the lands bill last spring, providing the agency with regular updates on the bill's cosponsors and committee and floor action, according to documents provided by a House Republican aide.

Established by the Clinton administration, NLCS oversees 27 million acres of wilderness areas and Western public lands, but the system is not on the same legal plane as the National Park Service, Forest Service and other federal agencies. The bill would simply codify NLCS.

For example, Denise Ryan of the National Wildlife Federation wrote in a March e-mail to four BLM officials that the National Rifle Association had decided to remove its support from the bill and asked for information on hunting and recreational shooting on NLCS land. "Can we pull together the brightest in the Bureau to help me with this?" she asked. "Make it a joint fact sheet?"

Ryan served as special assistant to the BLM director when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt created the NLCS in 2000. In a follow-up e-mail, Ryan thanked BLM's Jeff Jarvis for "whipping a team together yesterday for the fact sheet."

"It seemed like old times -- and that is a good thing!" she wrote.

Jarvis' reply: "Making progress, I look forward to seeing improvement this evening, and yes that was fun."

Last year, John Garder of the Wilderness Society wrote Jarvis and another BLM official about details of his meeting with House appropriators on fiscal 2008 spending bills. In June, Gardner wrote Jarvis: "I'm looking for a few things from you all, foremost a summary of managers' wish lists of any kind of summary on NLCS $ needs, as I intend to soon put something together." Jarvis replied that they could talk soon.

Last year, BLM's Mala Malhotra wrote NLCS officials Jarvis, Elena Daly and Dave Hunsaker to set up regular meetings with conservation groups. "They have adopted our approach to the NLCS name which is great. ... I am sure that the more we communicate with them, the more consistent our messages will be," she wrote. "The more our messages trickle to them, versus their messages trickling to us, the better."

After hearing a short list of the types of activities the environmental groups engaged in, government-ethics lawyer Jan Witold Baran said they did not set off alarm bells. "Without commenting on any of the specifics, to my knowledge it's hardly unique for organizational representatives to meet with government officials all over town every day on a widespread basis," said Baran, a partner at Wiley Rein LLP.

"It sounds to me like you've described a very active organization that is interacting with a part of the government that affects them and their supporters," Baran added.

Even Bishop acknowledged, "There's a whole lot of difference between inappropriate behavior, which is a political matter, and actual malfeasance."

The National Wildlife Federation's Lyon said his group's employees complied with lobbying laws. As is the case with other advocacy organizations, the federation talks frequently with government employees on issues in the public domain.

"There's nothing wrong with it and frankly there should be a lot more of it," Lyon said.

The group is cooperating with the Interior investigation, Lyon said. "The IG investigators have made it very clear to us that the NWF is not the target of this investigation," he added.

Kevin Mack, NLCS campaign director with the Wilderness Society, said he has not been contacted by investigators. He declined to comment further on the investigation or on his group's activities except to say that any probe "is not an investigation of folks in the conservation community."

Daly, the NLCS director, is planning to retire in January, but a source familiar with her decision said the retirement was long-planned and unrelated to the investigation.

Calls to BLM officials in the NLCS division were referred to the agency communications officials. Spokeswoman Celia Boddington noted the Bush administration supports the legislation but declined to comment on the investigation or employees' interactions with environmental groups other than to say they are cooperating fully with the inspector general.

'Red herring'

The chairman of the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee, Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the bill's sponsor, called the investigation a "red herring" designed to derail codifying the system. "If there is a corrective action that should be taken, it should be taken, but that shouldn't punish the legislation," Grijalva said.

Because it was created by administrative fiat: NLCS is not a permanent part of the Interior Department and a later administration could dissolve it. NLCS includes areas already designated as national monuments, wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, and national historic and scenic trails.

Grijalva said codifying the system would help address the decline of some sites.

Lyon said the bill is a needed final step of ensuring the protections are backed by law, especially given what he described as the Bush administration's poor record of protecting public lands. "Everything's in danger right now," he said.

But Bishop, who concedes the bill is likely to pass, said the system is redundant, especially given protections provided by other Interior agencies.

"It doesn't do anything, it doesn't appoint, it doesn't administer," Bishop said. "It's almost as if you're looking for something to do."

If Congress does not pass the bill, Bishop said Interior could fold NLCS and its lands into other Interior agencies, a move that would become impossible if the bill became law.

Western oil and gas interests are also concerned about the bill. "[It] in our view is a backdoor attempt at locking up by our estimates some 13 million acres of land that is now characterized as wilderness study areas," said Greg Schnacke, president and CEO of Americans for American Energy. "That will then become de facto wilderness, be managed as such, and essentially takes it away from any responsible multiple use management program and that's it for that acreage."

For its part, NWF suspects the bill's critics of coordinating their efforts against the measure. Last month, NWF filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records of communication between Bishop or Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho) and the IG's office, BLM employees and Interior's congressional affairs office, and between BLM employees and several Western energy industry groups, regarding NLCS or oil shale development. NWF officials noted that Bishop put out a press release revealing the IG investigation two days after the House passed a bill to remove a ban on commercial oil shale leasing on public lands in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

The Senate is scheduled to take up the NLCS bill as part of a 150-bill public lands and resources omnibus measure this month.

Removing the NLCS proposal could put the entire omnibus in jeopardy. Already facing opposition from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who claims the package continues frivolous government spending, the bill contains other controversial proposals, including one to allow construction of a road through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. If the Democratic leadership pulls the NLCS proposal, it could prompt environmentalists against the Izembek proposal to also have it removed from the package.

A spokesman for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said removing the NLCS bill is not a consideration. "This is a very carefully balanced package, and we don't have any intention to drop any bills," said Bill Wicker.

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