INTERIOR:

Veteran BLM official blasts agency for valuing drilling over conservation

The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management has lost sight of its mission in the political rush to use public lands for energy development, according to an experienced agency official.

Stan Olmstead retired last month after 20 years at BLM, most recently as a natural resource specialist and environmental scientist in the Vernal Field Office in eastern Utah. In his last few minutes on the clock, he decided to send a three-page memo to his colleagues outlining what he saw as the agency's focus on economics at the expense of natural resources.

He described an office that promotes energy development and measures natural resources "by dollar value," leading to the neglect of sensitive species and the land's health. As examples, he pointed to the loss of the mountain plover in Utah and the delay in reclaiming unused oil and gas wells.

"Without serious fulfillment of the mission we continue to harm public land as it has been harmed so frequently in our historic past," Olmstead wrote. "Be honest about what is happening. It is easier to break something than to fix it, so let us stop breaking the land."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released Olmstead's memo today, calling for a "visionary new leader" at BLM who will steer the agency away from what it sees as a focus on oil drilling. Bob Abbey retired in May as BLM director; since then, Deputy Director Mike Pool has served as acting director.

A BLM spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

Abbey had left BLM in 2005, citing the agency's singular focus on oil and gas drilling. He came back in 2009 as director and engineered a sweeping overhaul of oil and gas leasing on federal lands, promoting an expansion of renewable energy and a renewed focus on conservation.

But Olmstead depicts an agency that is still grappling with balancing its mission to protect public lands while reaching administrative goals to expand energy production. In an interview today, he pointed to a recent New York Times article that describes the close relationship between drillers and BLM officials in Utah.

Olmstead said his memo was "one last attempt to try to draw attention to the other values we have." His pleas -- and those of other natural resource employees -- while within the agency were mostly ignored, he said; protection of the health and diversity of public lands was simply not a priority.

"I think my main motive is to communicate," he said, adding that he has a meeting later this month with BLM Utah Director Juan Palma. "I have been somewhat quiet during my employment, and now that I'm in retirement I plan to speak out."

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