Zinke’s Reorganization of the BLM Will Continue Killing Babies

Photo by Bureau of Land Management CC BY 2.0

It is an axiom of both organization theory and public administration that regulatory agencies are captured by those they regulate. This is the reason behind Secretary of the Department of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s reorganization of the Bureau of Land Management, of eliminating the Washington headquarters and moving operations to either Denver (energy extraction business hub) or Salt Lake City (grazing and energy extraction).

Rep. Robert Bishop (R-UT), Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said as much,

“Hopefully the personnel changes,” he said on KSL Newsradio’s “The Doug Wright Show.” “(The state needs) people that are going to be much more receptive to what Utah needs and what the people need.”

So said Mike Noel, a GOP Utah legislator once (still?) rumored for Director of the BLM and who is currently toying with a U.S. Senaterun, when he sought me out while he and other Utah local politicians were berating student protesters at Southern Utah University back in 2015.

Mike is a self proclaimed theoconstitutionalist, saying on PBS’ Religion and Ethics Weekly just after the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover, “We believe strongly that the Constitution was divinely inspired, and even the founders of it were inspired to write the Constitution.” Mike is a seditionist, a vocal Bundy supporter, and was the lead on the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act which demanded a “return” of federal lands to the State of Utah. He’s even gotten the Utah Legislature and Governor to pass legislation creating their own “Department of Land Management” to be ready for the time if that ever happens.

Mike wanted to confront me at the Western Freedom Festival, a “celebration of our christian western heritage” funded with tax dollars and that intended to use school children from nine counties as props with a country music has been. Standing with my son and with some protesting SUU students after being stalked and verbally harassed by Piute County Commissioner Darin Bushman and a group of cowboys who later signed LaVoy Finicum’s “grazing renouncement pledges, Mike walked up to me, grabbed my hand, and introduced himself as The Posse watched with anticipation. Then he said “outsiders” like my wife, a BLM manager, and I were the problem with western lands management.

My retort was that he and his ilk wanted more Stringers from Vernal who kill babies. He then became unhinged.

Like Mike Noel, Bill Stringer is a former BLM employee, a District Manager for the Vernal District, and is currently a Commissioner for Uintah County, Utah. Stringer was a centerpiece in Rolling Stone’s 2015, “What’s Killing the Babies of Vernal, Utah?” During the G.W. Bush Administration and after the illegal Cheney Energy Task Force, the onus was placed on managers like Stringer to carry out the Administration’s energy development directives. And he did, with captured gusto, and like Noel,

“He introduced himself to me as Bill Stringer, one of the three Uintah County commissioners. In the 10 years before he took office in 2014, Stringer ran the Vernal branch of the Bureau of Land Management. Under him, the outpost grew from a single-story affair to one of the busiest licensing offices in the country. Stringer and his staff approved nearly three times the number of permits per year as his predecessor did. They granted “every application put before them,” says Stan Olmstead, an inspector for the BLM who quit in disgust under Stringer. “We couldn’t do site inspections; anyone with integrity up and left.”

The result,

“Five more babies would die that year, bringing the body count to at least 10 in Vernal; three more were lost in towns nearby. Young searched back to the start of the decade. In 2010, there were two, about average for a small town, then one in 2011 and four in 2012, including one whose mom worked at the senior facility on that smog-bound corner. And then the big jump in 2013, on the heels of a historic run in production that began a decade earlier. The Uintah Basin alone was home to more than 11,000 wells — that’s an enormous concentration of soot and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) drifting into Vernal, then sitting there; in that inversion-filled winter, the VOC count was equivalent to 100 million cars’ exhaust. Reached for comment about the region’s pollution, Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, a trade association for the drillers, said, “We acknowledged that the emissions were our responsibility, [and] have worked with the state to reduce them.” Asked about a link between those toxins and infant deaths, Sgamma said that “the epidemiologist showed there was not enough data to find the cause, and to make the jump you’re making is not supported.”

Lobbyist Kathleen Sgamma is with the Western Energy Alliance, an “oil and gas trade association representing energy companies working in the Rocky Mountain region” based in Denver. She, too, is a Mormon theoconstitutionalist, like Kathleen Clarke.

Clarke was the Director of the BLM, appointed by G.W.Bush, responsible for implementing the Cheney energy policy. She was responsible for Bill Stringer’s hiring, workload, the babies, and we know Stringer didn’t need her political pressure to comply. Clarke is now the Director for the State of Utah’s Public Lands Coordinating Office, working directly with Noel on lands transfer legislative goals.

It is of interest that both Clarke and Obama BLM Director Neil Kornze are Mormons, an indication that party matters not regarding agency capture. Current Zinke nominees include Ryan Nelson as Solicitor and John Tanner as DOI Legislative Affairs Director — both former Sen. Orrin Hatch aids — and Brian Steed, Rep. Chris Stewart’s former Chief of Staff, as interim Director of BLM.


Vernal is non-compliant with National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone and several environmental groups have sued to enforce the Clean Air Act — a challenge during a Trump-Pruitt science denying EPA. At the same time, the local BLM Office is once again being told to ramp up and is issuing even more permits to frack. Babies continue to die and Kathleen placates in a recent Salt Lake Tribune piece with the worn out, immoral, “economic development” line,

“One of the worst ways to address ozone is to stop economic development in the Basin. That would put the area in a double whammy,” said Kathleen Sgamma

Retorts Climate and Energy lead Jeremy Nichols of Wild Earth Guardians,

“The region is suffering a smog crisis and the Bureau of Land Management is turning a blind eye to the problem. Legally they are not allowed to issue more drilling permits until they can show their actions are solving the problem. This is a public threat. This is what matters more than anything else in northeastern Utah.”

I’m sorry, Jeremy, but what matters most in Utah are blind eyes and a captured BLM, so they can continue to issue permits — oil, gas, grazing — with conditions to their liking,

“At the leasing stage it is not known how much or even whether development will occur on those leases,” Sgamma said. “Once an implementation plans is in place, there is a process to ensure ozone levels will get down to the health standard. Any new development will have to be permitted accordingly.”

Noel, Stringer, Clarke and Sgamma know very well that if the BLM were moved to Salt Lake City or Denver there would be a greater likelihood that those employees would, through time, be composed mostly of local drones, those who can be controlled politically or through religion, those who have been indoctrinated into a way of thinking about public lands that is oftentimes contrary to the best available science whether that be biologic, air, water, or epidemiological — as science means little to many of those of faith and greed.

Having a Washington headquarters helps negate this kind of inappropriate “local” influence in public affairs, as government policy and their administration should be based on the needs of the entire nation, the entire people, and not just those who are regulated. Government bureaucracies should represent all Americans and not reflect a single region or economic sector.

When Trump comes to Utah in December for what everyone is thinking will be a simple Antiquities Act rescission of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, be looking for Ryan, Rob, Mike, Bill and the Kathleens to be by his side as he makes many announcements, one that that very well may include both relocation of BLM HQ to Salt Lake City and it’s new Director — likely Steed — from Utah.

While these politicians and lobbyists may not believe it, these are all of our lands, our resources.

And, while Zinke and they may not, we care about the women and babies in Vernal, the denuded overgrazed landscapes that is Utah and the entire West, and about exposing greedy corporate and politically based bureaucratic reorganization when we see it.


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Chris Zinda is an activist and writer living in Oregon.

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