INTERIOR

Bernhardt OKs contentious BLM law enforcement reforms

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt quietly signed a directive last month that could have significant impacts on how the Bureau of Land Management's law enforcement rangers protect federal lands.

The directive, which surprised BLM senior leaders and law enforcement personnel when it was unveiled Friday, alters the chain of command for the bureau's more than 200 law enforcement rangers in ways critics say give political appointees control over how laws and regulations are enforced.

In approving the changes, Bernhardt ignored recommendations developed over more than two years by a team of Interior Department and BLM career officials that called for granting more oversight of law enforcement personnel to individual state directors, according to multiple sources. Those recommendations were set to be finalized next month.

Instead, the new BLM Office of Law Enforcement and Security structure establishes a chain of command that critics within the bureau say cuts out state-level leadership on how law and regulations should be enforced in favor of regional special agents in charge and the new OLES director, Eric Kriley, who took over the department last month.

A coalition of some of BLM's 12 state directors plan to send a letter to Bernhardt this week opposing the directive, sources said.

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Some state directors have vowed not to implement the changes, preferring to wait until President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated next week, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

BLM state directors and other senior leaders were stunned when William Perry Pendley, the bureau's deputy director of policy and programs, announced the changes Friday during an online meeting of BLM's executive leadership team.

Mike Nedd, BLM's deputy director of operations and a career official, said during the online meeting that he wasn't consulted on the changes. He told executive leadership team members during the meeting that he was "flabbergasted" and "appalled" by the process, according to sources.

"This announcement came as a complete surprise," said a current senior Interior official who asked not to be identified. "Even Mike Nedd did not know."

BLM didn't respond to a request for comment on this story.

The agency issued a vague press release late Friday announcing it has "modernized" OLES's "reporting structure" in an effort to establish a system in which law enforcement rangers and special agents are directly overseen by BLM law enforcement personnel. The press release includes few details on the changes.

Currently, BLM's nearly 290 law enforcement rangers and special agents report to individual state directors and district and field managers; the day-to-day chain of command can vary from state to state.

They are responsible for enforcing federal laws and protecting natural resources on the 245 million acres of public lands that BLM manages, mostly in the West and Alaska.

The BLM press release bemoans the fact that BLM rangers are "supervised by BLM State Directors and district and field office managers, none of whom has a law enforcement background or more than a minimum (24 hours) of law enforcement training."

Kriley emailed BLM law enforcement personnel on Friday indicating that the "process of transitioning to a centralized management model for all law enforcement personnel" would take effect immediately, and that the BLM department manual was being updated to reflect the changes, according to a copy of the email obtained by E&E News.

BLM said in its press release that the changes were recommended in an Interior Office of Inspector General report released in 2002 during the George W. Bush administration.

It's not clear why Interior is making the changes nearly two decades later, and in the final few days of the Trump administration.

Pendley referenced that IG report in the press release as justification for the changes.

"Beginning today, BLM's law enforcement officers will be supervised by fellow, highly trained law enforcement officers who fully understand the difficult responsibilities they execute daily," he said.

Troubled past

In addition to the timing, the changes are also perplexing for creating a system in which more authority is given to officials in BLM's headquarters.

Indeed, Pendley wrote in a 2019 op-ed in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the Trump administration wants BLM law enforcement personnel to "maintain deference" to local sheriffs and police departments (Greenwire, Nov. 25, 2019).

Critics took Pendley's comments as a signal that the Trump administration would weaken the bureau's law enforcement branch, which has been criticized as too aggressive by some Western leaders, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R).

While exploring changes to the management structure of BLM's OLES is fine, doing so "with no prior discussion or notice" with career staff is the wrong way to go about it, said Ed Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, a BLM retirees' group.

"There are pros and cons with organizational changes like this that are typically made after discussions with the involved staff and leadership," Shepard said. "It's unfortunate [Pendley] felt he needed to announce the decision to the people charged with managing the public lands and implementing the decision at the same time the BLM announces the decision with a press release."

The administration has made changing OLES a priority.

It started in 2019, when former OLES Director William Woody was escorted out of Interior's Washington headquarters and required to surrender his firearm and badge under still-mysterious circumstances (Greenwire, June 17, 2019).

Woody later filed an age discrimination and disability complaint against Interior that demanded he be reinstated to the director's position he held off and on since 2003. Woody and BLM apparently settled that complaint, and BLM last year confirmed that Woody is no longer employed at the bureau (Greenwire, Jan. 24, 2020).

Email: sstreater@eenews.net

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