The Bureau of Land Management - rarely loved and often-maligned - means a lot of different things to all the different people who use the BLM's 22 million acres of public land in Utah.
In fact, historically the bureau has such a reputation for kowtowing to cattlemen and prospectors that legions of critics still refer to the BLM as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining.But now, as part of a federal bureaucracy where public image means everything, today's BLM says it wants a new image - one that includes not so many Hereford cattle and uranium mines and a lot more cultural museums, hiking trails, beaches, bicycling and a host of other "non-traditional" uses to appeal to more and more non-traditional users.
"Recreation is the bureau's number one priority now," said James Parker, BLM state director. "And we in Utah are changing our focus in that direction."
Talk is cheap, critics say. But if Parker's promise is true, it is much-welcomed news to Utah environmentalists and recreationists who have long believed that Utah's BLM lands in particular have held far greater potential for recreation than for mining and livestock-raising.
"If they are indeed changing their focus, then we also are optimistic," said Rudy Lukez, conservation chairman for the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club.
"Maybe they are finally realizing the amazing recreational resource they have here in Utah, that there is more to BLM lands than how many dollars they can scrape from the surface or how many dollars they can get from running cattle over the land. Hopefully, it signals a conversion of economies away from resource extraction."
The Utah recreation priority mirrors a national BLM priority. But even Parker admits that all the current optimism will probably not translate into immediate dollars or more rangers for recreation management.
And many BLM managers are pessimistic they will ever see significant funding to expand or exploit the countless recreation opportunities on their very doorsteps. Promises have been made before - and never fulfilled.
Nevertheless, in what many say is an unprecedented move, some BLM funds originally budgeted for traditional management objectives, like mining and livestock, are now being diverted to recreation and wildlife management.
The refocusing toward recreation may appear subtle or almost non-existent in some BLM districts, while in others it has become a primary focus of local management objectives. "I think Moab is a prime example of that," Parker said. "Recreation is king in Moab right now."
But the "new" recreation image still comes down to a simple, unavoidable reality: money and the lack of it. The National Forest Service and the National Park Service consistently receive a generous size of the budget pie, in large part because of their proven track record when it comes to recreation.
That bigger piece of the budget pie comes despite the fact that both the Forest Service and the Park Service manage far less land than does the BLM, and they manage those lands with more people and more resources.
"It's taken the BLM a while to catch on to how the game is played in Congress, but they are learning," said one southern Utah BLM manager. "If it works for the Forest Service, then it just might mean bigger budgets for the BLM, too."
Added Lukez, "The BLM is 10 years behind the Forest Service and a full generation behind the National Park Service in understanding recreational needs. And now they face an even greater challenge because the BLM lands are much more fragile and much more expansive."
The question now is whether Congress will listen. Lukez says that if the BLM is indeed serious about its recreation objectives then it will require the hiring of recreation and environmental professionals into the BLM bureaucracy - instead of the traditional cowboy-turned-BLM-bureaucrats who have managed the lands to the exclusive benefit of ranchers and miners, as critics say has been the case.
And it will require a new kind of accounting as to how the BLM's efficiency is measured. Traditionally, the BLM's accountability to Congress is measured on how much revenue it produces from the public lands: coal leases, oil royalties, grazing permits, etc.
"But how do you measure how much money mountain bikers bring into the economy? Or hikers? That has to be taken into the accounting, as well," Lukez said.
Parker maintains the BLM will continue to be a friend and ally to miners and ranchers. But he adds the BLM's role will have to expand to better accommodate other user groups.
And that reorientation toward recreation will not come without resistance from ranchers and miners, as well as within the BLM itself, particularly from district offices that have developed long-standing relationships with ranchers.
Parker believes recreation can co-exist with traditional ranching and mining. There is a growing awareness in southern Utah that recreation is the future, he said.
"There a lot of the people who go there go for the real Western experience, and the aura of the cowboy is very real to those folks. And I don't think they will mind seeing cattle on the trails."
On the other side of the coin, "The cattlemen see the changes coming, too. And most are willing to cooperate. But it's going to mean changes. It's going to mean rail fences instead of wire fences. It's going to mean keeping cows out of areas where people camp."
Just exactly what needs to be done to placate both traditional land users and recreationists remains to be seen. There has been little funding to develop recreation management plans, let alone actual facilities.
"As recreation increases, it's become more and more obvious we need a better recreation focus to our management plan," Parker said. "We need a strong direction, a better idea of where we are going with specific plans for different areas."
But the BLM is caught in a classical Catch-22: Congress is willing to fund recreation development, but only after the BLM has proven an existing need for recreation in a given area. But by the time the BLM demonstrates that need, the need has evolved into a crisis and the consequent damage to the resources is often irreparable.
And there's a second factor hindering recreational development in Utah: "The traditional philosophy has crept through the bureau that the BLM will focus more on a primitive experience and less on developed camp sites. And that makes it a little hard to get development funding for trails and campsites."
That kind of traditional thinking never foresaw what is happening on Utah's BLM lands. Among the problem areas:
- Several hundred thousand people camping along the shores of Yuba Reservoir every year, all without garbage disposal or human waste facilities.
- Tens of thousands of ATVs competing for limited space at Little Sahara sand dunes (in what is now one of the BLM's few developed recreational facilities).
- More than 30,000 backpackers traipsing through Grand Gulch - one of the most environmentally and culturally sensitive areas anywhere in America. Damage to Indian ruins there can often never be repaired.
- Tens of thousands of mountain bikers turning the Slickrock Bike Trail into a Moab version of traffic gridlock.
- Scores of campers turning the banks of the Colorado River into a giant, informal campground, dumping their waste into the river and turning one of the state's most scenic areas into what some have called a "scenic cesspool."
They are all areas awaiting recreational development funding. And they are still waiting even after the problem became a crisis.
BLM officials are also concerned about the future. There are "dozens of other areas in southern Utah that are going to get hit the same way over the next few years," said Brad Palmer, a BLM manager in Moab. "The question will be whether we can prepare for the demand before the resources become damaged beyond repair."
Lukez agrees. Overreaction can be just as detrimental to the environment as overgrazing or irresponsible mining practices.
"Every year we are seeing more and more people using those BLM lands," Lukez said. "And those BLM lands are being used all year round. There's bound to be impacts, and (the BLM) is going to have to come to grips with those issues through better recreation management."