America’s Biggest Absentee Landlord is You
For Americans living east of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the Department of the Interior is almost a non-entity. Known for running the National Park Service but not much else, the public “back east” is one that is generally ignorant of the role the Department of the Interior plays, via its Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other Interior agencies, in determining the fate of millions upon millions of acres of publicly-owned and federally-administered land. This needs to change.
For those who don’t know, the Interior Department manages just over 250 million surface acres, most by far to be found in the American West, with its total portfolio comprising nearly one-eighth the land mass of the country. Additionally, BLM administers the regulation of some 700 million subsurface acres of mineral deposits throughout the country. Rights to offshore minerals are also overseen by Interior through its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,
Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), formerly known as the Minerals Management Service. So, to put it in perspective, when you fly over the Rockies from New York or Chicago to Los Angeles or any other big city out West, if you look down, you will mostly likely be seeing vast stretches of land owned, well, by you.
Yes, that’s right, you, and unfortunately every other U.S. citizen, are by far the biggest landlord in the country. Unfortunate because you, and everyone else, are absentee landlords that have forgotten about their property and have left it up to others to decide what to do with it.
This absenteeism has made proper management of federal lands – whether for economic development or environmental preservation – deeply problematic, politically contentious, and prone to endemic corruption.
The latest evidence of this comes in the form of a letter sent by the House Natural Resources Committee to the Interior Department inquiring about potential conflicts of interest by several Interior officials, including a counselor to the Interior Secretary whose primary responsibility was to oversee the development of renewable energy projects on federal land.
Love apparently got in the way as the counselor in question, Steve Black, became romantically involved with one Manal Yomout, a former aide to California governor Jerry Brown and current Director of Federal Government Affairs for a renewable energy company.
While no accusations of wrongdoing have been made yet, there are questions as to the timing of the relationship’s disclosure in relation to subsequent approval of Ms. Yomout’s company’s project by the federal government.
In another instance of possible impropriety, the Committee’s letter also raised issues with the awarding of $528,000 in fees to a company co-owned by the former director of the BLM, Bob Abbey, for the arrangement of a sale of federal lands to a private developer on behalf of the city of Henderson, Nevada. According to a newspaper report cited by the Committee, Abbey, while serving at BLM director in 2011, agreed to help a partner in his firm deal with BLM in regard to the prospective land sale. Soon after retiring as director in 2012, BLM approved the sale of land for $10.4 million and Abbey returned as a named partner to the firm a month later – raising suspicions of dirty dealing and prompting an investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general.
Lest one think this is sour grapes by Republican House members out to make life miserable for the Obama administration, think again. The good folks at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) have also dug up shady goings on at Interior and BLM. In a 2010 letter to the Interior Secretary, POGO presented the findings of its investigation into BLM’s ethical practices which, of course, were found lacking. According to POGO:
“BLM’s senior management did not appropriately respond to the Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) findings that BLM Farmington, New Mexico, District Manager Steve Henke accepted gifts from oil companies without reporting them. BLM’s management did not issue warnings, institute disciplinary actions, or otherwise hold Mr. Henke accountable. Nor did BLM’s ethics officials exercise sufficient due diligence when apprised of Mr. Henke’s stroll through the revolving door to go work as the president of an oil and gas association.”
Corruption this brazen is pretty hard to ignore, but apparently BLM was more than up to the job of doing so. What’s more, POGO reports that one of the oil and gas companies behind the gifts, Williams Exploration & Production – a subsidiary of Williams Energy, the fourth largest pipeline operator in the United States – itself launched an investigation into its own misdeeds in effectively bribing a BLM official while BLM senior management sat on its heels.
Perhaps, they were worried what a focus on corruption at BLM and Interior at large might reveal about their own actions. Whatever their secrets, it is clear corruption is a major problem at the Department of Interior and is one that is both of long standing and importance. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon Disaster that led to the crippling Gulf Oil spill which killed untold amounts of wildlife and closed beaches all along the U.S. Gulf Coast was in no small part facilitated by shoddy oversight and corruption at Interior’s Minerals Management Service (now part of BOEMRE) – the federal agency charged with managing the country’s offshore mineral deposits.
Then there is perhaps the granddaddy of corruption scandals at Interior, revealed in 2008, where MMS officials overseeing oil and gas leases worth billions were so corrupt that they were having sex and taking drugs with energy industry representatives in a sort of fossil-fuel rendition of Studio 54 excess. This went on, say reports, for four years!
The systemic corruption and incompetence in administering federal lands and overseeing the public’s mineral rights consistently seen at the Department of the Interior are the result of several factors. The first is the relative low priority that environmental and land management concerns receive in the U.S. press. When an obvious disaster occurs, such as in the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill, the public pays attention for a time, but most of Interior’s problems with corruption and oversight stem from the fact that when it comes to land management, the devil is in the details of day-to-day administration and enforcement of lands faraway from most of the public’s lives and concerns.
As a result, no one, except for media watchdogs, lobbyists and activist groups, pay much attention to what goes on. While this is true of every government bureaucracy to some extent, some agencies, like the State Department or the Pentagon, naturally receive more coverage because their prestige and public profile is much higher. A huge part of the problem at a department like Interior is that it is simply ignored by most of the political and media establishment because land management, unlike Mideast diplomacy, isn’t sexy enough to care about. This, in turn, makes it extremely difficult for average citizens – the folks who, remember, ostensibly own all that land overseen by Interior – to keep track of what is going on.
Another problem is the type of political appointee who gets to run something like the Department of the Interior. Unlike the so-called “power ministries” – like the Department of State, Department of Defense, and the Treasury Department – a tenure running Interior does not automatically make you a contender for higher political office at the federal level. As a result, second-tier politicians and political cronies are often used to fill positions at Interior, which makes it a patronage dumping ground filled with yes men, lobbyists, low-ranking politicos on the make and incompetents. As a result, professional management of the Department by technocrats and scientists is undermined, sometimes fatally.
From this stems a third problem which fundamentally undermines proper stewardship of public lands and resources by Interior – the degree to which the outcome of elections can so dramatically change effective policy one way or the other in a field of endeavor where consistency and scientific expertise is necessary for the successful preservation and environmentally benign development of the nation’s resources. Physical laws of geology, ecology, and the like do not change just because the opposition party wins an election. Nor do they change when the economy turns south or prices change. They are constant, unlike our political or economic system, and the consequential lack of policy consistency our politics produces cannot be good for maintaining best practice in what is, in the end, a highly technical field.
Finally, the fourth problem underlining Interior’s administration of America’s public lands is the fact that it is a federal agency with a nearly impossible responsibility – it has to simultaneously administer, conserve and develop one-eighth of the country’s land mass. In many cases federal oversight and regulation can be good things as it brings in an outside umpire who can, in a disinterested fashion, rise above petty local concerns to impose, from above, what in the public’s interest. At least that is the theory, but in practice Interior has been subject to the worst of both worlds.
To many locals, Interior is seen as a distant, arrogant enforcer of the preferences of outsiders who live far away from the lands in question. For people in states like Idaho, Utah, and the other sparsely populated Western states where much of the land is owned and controlled by the federal government, this can be both galling and emasculating, which ultimately undermines the legitimacy federal stewardship in the long run. Furthermore, as the string of corruption scandals at Interior indicates, Interior officials are not immune to local pressures – especially when said pressure is backed by deep pockets. As a result of the highly partisan competition for control of Interior, Interior’s policies and management culture can change on a dime as political fortunes rise and fall purely due to partisan political reasons.
So what can be done? At first blush, fixing Interior’s problems would seem to be a simple case of ensuring more oversight and greater emphasis on anti-corruption efforts and purely technocratic management practices. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen as the Interior Department’s problems are political in nature. So long as interested parties see control of Interior as a winner-take-all, high-stakes competition, then there will be enormous incentives to corrupt Interior, through outright bribery or via political capture, regardless of what happens.
Therefore, the key is to lower the stakes of any one Interior decision while also incorporating more stakeholders into its decision-making process in order to shore up the legitimacy of Interior’s administration and rule-making.
One way to do this might be to take the running of Interior away from Congress and the president and place it into the hands of an independent council comprised of industry representatives, environmental activists, local officials and federal technocrats that would regulate federal lands and oversee its development. An independent council that incorporates such representatives would force interested parties to negotiate directly with one another to form policy instead of acting though an easily politicians. This could have several advantages.
First, such a system would be reminiscent of corporatist policy-making in social-democratic Europe where central governments in places like Germany often oversee direct negotiations between capital and labor and then serve as an umpire and enforcer of deals once they are concluded. Such deals, having been hashed out directly by interested parties, are often much less contentious and far more legitimate than decisions that are handed down from on high by whomever wins political battles at the national level.
Second, local stakeholders, especially in states where land ownership is dominated by the federal government, need to be far more directly incorporated into decision making than they are now. At best, they are now represented only haphazardly though electoral politics at the federal level. Much better to have them directly negotiate with others deeply interested in the future of America’s public lands. One could envision a “federal” public-lands council system where a federal council set broad national outlines and state and local councils make decisions and oversee the results. Such a system might look like the Federal Reserve System, which has both a central bank located in Washington, D.C. as well as regional banks that oversee different parts of the country.
Finally, independence from the larger political process should not be feared. Democracies have often taken important agencies and regulators away from direct control by legislatures because legislators cannot resist the temptation to manipulated outcomes for electoral gain. This is why independent agencies like the Federal Reserve, Federal Election Commission, and the like were created. Indeed, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) was created by Congress to shut down unneeded military bases precisely because Congress knew it would never be able to close down pork-laden bases on its own – doing so would simply be too contentious.
Is this a perfect solution to the problem of managing America’s public lands? No, but in politics as in any human endeavor solutions to problems always involve trade-offs and unforeseen complications. A council system as suggested above will no doubt present a host of difficult issues that will lead to suboptimal, politically unpopular outcomes. That is the nature of governance. What’s known for sure now, however, is that our current system for managing one-eighth the surface area of the country isn’t working. Absentee landlords are never great – for tenants or managers. The best thing to do might be to devolve control of our property to those most directly interested in using and maintaining it.
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