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Bureau of Land Management
Agency within the United States Department of the Interior
This article needs to be updated. Please update this article to reflect recent events or newly available information.(February 2020)
This map shows land owned by different federal government agencies. The yellow represents the Bureau of Land Management's holdings.
The mission of the BLM is "to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations." Originally BLM holdings were described as "land nobody wanted" because homesteaders had passed them by. All the same, ranchers hold nearly 18,000 permits and leases for livestock grazing on 155 million acres (630,000 km2) of BLM public lands. The agency manages 221 wilderness areas, 27 national monuments and some 636 other protected areas as part of the National Conservation Lands (formerly known as the National Landscape Conservation System), totaling about 36 million acres (150,000 km2). In addition the National Conservation Lands include nearly 2,400 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, and nearly 6,000 miles of National Scenic and Historic Trails. There are more than 63,000 oil and gas wells on BLM public lands. Total energy leases generated approximately $5.4 billion in 2013, an amount divided among the Treasury, the states, and Native American groups.
The BLM's roots go back to the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. These laws provided for the survey and settlement of the lands that the original 13 colonies ceded to the federal government after the American Revolution. As additional lands were acquired by the United States from Spain, France and other countries, the United States Congress directed that they be explored, surveyed, and made available for settlement. During the Revolutionary War, military bounty land was promised to soldiers who fought for the colonies. After the war, the Treaty of Paris of 1783, signed by the United States, the UK, France, and Spain, ceded territory to the United States. In the 1780s, other states relinquished their own claims to land in modern-day Ohio. By this time, the United States needed revenue to function. Land was sold so that the government would have money to survive. In order to sell the land, surveys needed to be conducted. The Land Ordinance of 1785 instructed a geographer to oversee this work as undertaken by a group of surveyors. The first years of surveying were completed by trial and error; once the territory of Ohio had been surveyed, a modern public land survey system had been developed. In 1812, Congress established the General Land Office as part of the Department of the Treasury to oversee the disposition of these federal lands. By the early 1800s, promised bounty land claims were finally fulfilled.
In the 19th century, other bounty land and homestead laws were enacted to dispose of federal land. Several different types of patents existed. These include cash entry, credit, homestead, Indian, military warrants, mineral certificates, private land claims, railroads, state selections, swamps, town sites, and town lots. A system of local land offices spread throughout the territories, patenting land that was surveyed via the corresponding Office of the Surveyor General of a particular territory. This pattern gradually spread across the entire United States. The laws that spurred this system with the exception of the General Mining Law of 1872 and the Desert Land Act of 1877 have since been repealed or superseded.
In 1946, the Grazing Service was merged with the General Land Office to form the Bureau of Land Management within the Department of the Interior. It took several years for this new agency to integrate and reorganize. In the end, the Bureau of Land Management became less focused on land disposal and more focused on the long term management and preservation of the land. The agency achieved its current form by combining offices in the western states and creating a corresponding office for lands both east of and alongside the Mississippi River. As a matter of course, the BLM's emphasis fell on activities in the western states as most of the mining, land sales, and federally owned areas are located west of the Mississippi.
BLM personnel on the ground have typically been oriented toward local interests, while bureau management in Washington are led by presidential guidance. By means of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, Congress created a more unified bureau mission and recognized the value of the remaining public lands by declaring that these lands would remain in public ownership. The law directed that these lands be managed with a view toward "multiple use" defined as "management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people."
Since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, Republicans have often given priority to local control and to grazing, mining and petroleum production, while Democrats have more often emphasized environmental concerns even when granting mining and drilling leases. In September 1996, then President Bill Clinton used his authority under the Antiquities Act to establish the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, the first of now 20 national monuments established on BLM lands and managed by the agency. The establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante foreshadowed later creation of the BLM's National Landscape Conservation System in 2000. Use of the Antiquities Act authority, to the extent it effectively scuttled a coal mine to have been operated by Andalex Resources, delighted recreation and conservation enthusiasts but set up larger confrontations with state and local authorities.
Under the Trump administration, the BLM offered millions of acres of available Federal lands for 10-year leases for commercial development, potentially in oil and gas and mining, with the stated goal of "promoting American energy security". The BLM holds quarterly oil and gas lease sales. According to a June 18, 2018 article in The Atlantic, under the tenure of then-United States Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke "practically gave away hundreds of thousands of acres of open land across the West, leasing it to energy companies for pennies on the dollar."The Salt Lake Tribune reported that in March 2019, the price per acre for leases near the Golden Spike National Historical Park, in Utah were "$1.50 an acre for the next two years". By September 11, 2018, the Department of Interior was offering 2.9 million acres to be leased to commercial operations including drilling for oil and gas and mining in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and other states where public land is not protected by a national park or monument designation. The BLM's May 30, 2019 statement proposed an additional 183,668 acres on "lands managed by the Canyon Country, Color Country, Green River, and West Desert districts" that would be listed for the quarterly oil and gas lease sale on September 10, 2019. In their May 2019, September lease offerings, the BLM said that they had "245 million acres of public land located primarily in 12 Western states, including Alaska" and across the United States another "700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate" is under their management. The statement also said that these "diverse activities authorized on these lands generated $96 billion in sales of goods and services throughout the American economy in fiscal year 2017" while supporting over 468,000 jobs".
On August 4, 2020, President Donald J. Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act into law, committing up to $1.9 billion from energy development revenues to the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund each year for five years for needed maintenance for critical facilities and infrastructure in national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas and American Indian schools. The Act also committed $900 million a year in royalties from offshore oil and natural gas to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund investments in conservation and recreation opportunities across the country.
Also in August 2020, the BLM headquarters was relocated to Grand Junction, Colorado, by an order signed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. The relocation was praised by Western politicians but criticized by Democrats as a move to weaken the agency through the loss of experienced staffers, who opted to stay in Washington, D.C.
Most of the public lands held by the Bureau of Land Management are located in the western states.
Grazing. The BLM manages livestock grazing on nearly 155 million acres (630,000 km2) million acres under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The agency has granted more than 18,000 permits and leases to ranchers who graze their livestock, mostly cattle and sheep, at least part of the year on BLM public lands. Permits and leases generally cover a 10-year period and are renewable if the BLM determines that the terms and conditions of the expiring permit or lease are being met. The federal grazing fee is adjusted annually and is calculated using a formula originally set by Congress in the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978. Under this formula, the grazing fee cannot fall below $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM), nor can any fee increase or decrease exceed 25 percent of the previous year's level. The grazing fee for 2014 was set at $1.35 per AUM, the same level as for 2013. Over time there has been a gradual decrease in the amount of grazing that takes place on BLM-managed land. Grazing on public lands has declined from 18.2 million AUMs in 1954 to 7.9 million AUMs in 2013.
Mining. Domestic production from over 63,000 Federal "onshore" oil and gas wells on BLM lands accounts for 11 percent of the natural gas supply and five percent of the oil supply in the United States. BLM has on record a total of 290,000 mining claims under the General Mining Law of 1872. The BLM supports an all of the above energy approach, which includes oil and gas, coal, strategic minerals, and renewable energy resources such as wind, geothermal and solar--all of which may be developed on public lands and subject to free markets. This approach strengthens American energy security, supports job creation, and strengthens America's energy infrastructure. The BLM is also taking steps to make energy development on public lands easier by reviewing and streamlining its business processes to serve industry and the American public. Even under the current administration's America first and energy independence the total mining claims on lands owned by the BLM has decreased while also the amount of rejected claims has increased. too put some context on this, the BLM oversees over 3.8 million mining claims. However, approximately 89% are closed mines with just over 10% of claims still being active. Of these active claims Nevada currently has the most at 203,705. The next closest state is California with 49,259.
Coal leases. The BLM holds the coal mineral estate to more than 570 million acres (2,300,000 km2) where the owner of the surface is the federal government, a state or local government, or a private entity. As of 2013, the BLM had competitively granted 309 leases for coal mining to 474,252 acres (191,923 ha), an increase of 13,487 acres (5,458 ha) or nearly 3% increase in land subject to coal production over ten years' time.
Recreation. The BLM administers 205,498 miles (330,717 km) of fishable streams, 2.2 million acres (8,900 km2) of lakes and reservoirs, 6,600 miles (10,600 km) of floatable rivers, over 500 boating access points, 69 National Back Country Byways, and 300 Watchable Wildlife sites. The agency also manages 4,500 miles (7,200 km) of National Scenic, National Historic and National Recreation Trails, as well as thousands of miles of multiple use trails used by motorcyclists, hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers. In 2013, BLM lands received an estimated 61.7 million recreational visitors. Over 99% of BLM-managed lands are open to hunting, recreational shooting opportunities, and fishing.
Timberlands. The Bureau manages 55 million acres (220,000 km2) of forests and woodlands, including 11 million acres (45,000 km2) of commercial forest and 44 million acres (180,000 km2) of woodlands in 11 western states and Alaska. 53 million acres (210,000 km2) are productive forests and woodlands on public domain lands and 2.4 million acres (9,700 km2) are on O&C lands in western Oregon.
Calm Before the Storm: Fatigued BLM Firefighters taking a break after a fire in Oregon in 2008
Firefighting. Well in excess of 3,000 full-time equivalent firefighting personnel work for BLM. The agency fought 2,573 fires on BLM-managed lands in fiscal year 2013.
Mineral rights on Indian lands. As part of its trust responsibilities, the BLM provides technical advice for minerals operations on 56 million acres (230,000 km2) of Indian lands.
Leasing and Land Management of Split Estates. A split estate is similar to the broad form deeds used, starting in the early 1900s. It is a separation of mineral rights and surface rights on a property. The BLM manages split estates, but only in cases when the "surface rights are privately owned and the rights to the minerals are held by the Federal Government."
Cadastral surveys. The BLM is the official record keeper for over 200 years' worth of cadastral survey records and plats as part of the Public Land Survey System. In addition, the Bureau still completes numerous new surveys each year, mostly in Alaska, and conducts resurveys to restore obliterated or lost original surveys.
Abandoned mines. BLM maintains an inventory of known abandoned mines on the lands it manages. As of April 2014, the inventory contained nearly 46,000 sites and 85,000 other features. Approximately 23% of the sites had either been remediated, had reclamation actions planned or underway, or did not require further action. The remaining sites require further investigation. A 2008 Inspector General report alleges that BLM has for decades neglected the dangers represented by these abandoned mines.
Helium. BLM operates the National Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas, a program begun in 1925 during the time of the Zeppelin Wars. Though the reserve had been set to be moved to private hands, it remains subject to oversight of the BLM under the provisions of the unanimously-passed Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act of 2013.
Revenue and fees. The BLM produces significant revenue for the United States budget. In 2009, public lands were expected to generate an estimated $6.2 billion in revenues, mostly from energy development. Nearly 43.5% of these funds are provided directly to states and counties to support roads, schools, and other community needs.
Uniformed rangers enforce laws and regulations governing BLM lands and resources. As part of that mission, these BLM rangers carry firearms, defensive equipment, make arrests, execute search warrants, complete reports and testify in court. They seek to establish a regular and recurring presence on a vast amount of public lands, roads and recreation sites. They focus on the protection of natural and cultural resources, other BLM employees and visitors. Given the many locations of BLM public lands, these rangers use canines, helicopters, snowmobiles, dirt bikes and boats to perform their duties.
By contrast BLM special agents are criminal investigators who plan and conduct investigations concerning possible violations of criminal and administrative provisions of the BLM and other statutes under the United States Code. Special agents are normally plain clothes officers who carry concealed firearms, and other defensive equipment, make arrests, carry out complex criminal investigations, present cases for prosecution to local United States Attorneys and prepare investigative reports. Criminal investigators occasionally conduct internal and civil claim investigations.
The BLM manages free-roaming horses and burros on public lands in ten western states. Though they are feral, the agency is obligated to protect them under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFRHBA). As the horses have few natural predators, populations have grown substantially. WFRHBA as enacted provides for the removal of excess animals; the destruction of lame, old, or sick animals; the private placement or adoption of excess animals; and even the destruction of healthy animals if range management required it. In fact, the destruction of healthy or unhealthy horses has almost never occurred. Pursuant to the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978, the BLM has established 179 "herd management areas" (HMAs) covering 31.6 million acres (128,000 km2) acres where feral horses can be found on federal lands.
In 1973, BLM began a pilot project on the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range known as the Adopt-A-Horse initiative. The program took advantage of provisions in the WFRHBA to allow private "qualified" individuals to "adopt" as many horses as they wanted if they could show that they could provide adequate care for the animals. At the time, title to the horses remained permanently with the federal government. The pilot project was so successful that BLM allowed it to go nationwide in 1976. The Adopt-a-Horse program quickly became the primary method of removing excess feral horses from BLM land given the lack of other viable methods. The BLM also uses limited amounts of contraceptives in the herd, in the form of PZP vaccinations; advocates say that additional use of these vaccines would help to diminish the excess number of horses currently under BLM management.
Despite the early successes of the adoption program, the BLM has struggled to maintain acceptable herd levels, as without natural predators, herd sizes can double every four years. As of 2014, there were more than 49,000 horses and burros on BLM-managed land, exceeding the BLM's estimated "appropriate management level" (AML) by almost 22,500.
The Bureau of Land Management has implemented several programs and has developed partnerships as part of their management plan for preserving wild burros and horses in the United States. There are several herds of horses and burros roaming free on 26.9 million acres of range spread out in ten western states. It is essential to maintain a balance that keeps herd management land and animal population healthy. Some programs and partnerships include the Mustang Heritage Foundation, U.S. Border Patrol, Idaho 4H, Napa Mustang Days and Little Book Cliffs Darting Team. These partnerships help with adoption and animal population as well as education and raising awareness about wild horses and burros.
In 2009, BLM opened Renewable Energy Coordination Offices in order to approve and oversee wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal projects on BLM-managed lands. The offices were located in the four states where energy companies had shown the greatest interest in renewable energy development: Arizona, California, Nevada, and Wyoming.
Solar energy. In 2010, BLM approved the first utility-scale solar energy projects on public land. As of 2014, 70 solar energy projects covering 560,000 acres (2,300 km2) had been proposed on public lands managed by BLM primarily located in Arizona, California, and Nevada. To date, it has approved 29 projects that have the potential to generate 8,786 megawatts of renewable energy or enough energy to power roughly 2.6 million homes. The projects range in size from a 45-megawatt photovoltaic system on 422 acres (171 ha) to a 1,000-megawatt parabolic trough system on 7,025 acres (2,843 ha).
Wind energy. BLM manages 20.6 million acres (83,000 km2) of public lands with wind potential. It has authorized 39 wind energy development projects with a total approved capacity of 5,557 megawatts or enough to supply the power needs of over 1.5 million homes. In addition, BLM has authorized over 100 wind energy testing sites.
Geothermal energy. BLM manages 59 geothermal leases in producing status, with a total capacity of 1,500 megawatts. This amounts to over 40% of the geothermal energy capacity in the United States.
Biomass and bioenergy. Its large portfolio of productive timberlands leaves BLM with woody biomass among its line of forest products. The biomass is composed of "smaller diameter materials" and other debris that result from timber production and forest management. Though the use of these materials as a renewable resource is nascent, the agency is engaged in pilot projects to increase the use of its biomass supplies in bioenergy programs.
^ abElliott, Clayton R. (August 2010). Innovation in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management: Insights from Integrating Mule Deer Management with Oil and Gas Leasing (Masters Thesis). University of Montana. pp. 42-51. hdl:2027.42/77588.
^Elliott, Clayton R. (August 2010). Innovation in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management: Insights from Integrating Mule Deer Management with Oil and Gas Leasing (Masters Thesis). University of Montana. p. 45. hdl:2027.42/77588.
^Elliott, Clayton R. (August 2010). Innovation in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management: Insights from Integrating Mule Deer Management with Oil and Gas Leasing (Masters Thesis). University of Montana. pp. 5, 51-52. hdl:2027.42/77588.