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Balance is key for BLM agency chief

WASHINGTON — The peaceful photo of the Grand Tetons hanging in the sunlight on her office wall actually brings tears to her eyes, evoking memories of annual childhood vacations there and at Utah's Lake Powell, too.

"I remember hiking away from the family and sitting on the rocks, and just soaking in that sense of stillness and of wonder of being in God's creation," says Kathleen Clarke, the Utahn who is director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

"So I do have a passionate connection to the land, and I appreciate the set of values that drives many people who want it protected and preserved," she says.

But Clarke — who also was co-owner of a construction company — says America also needs the oil, minerals, lumber and other resources that come from public lands. The trick is finding the right balance between conservation and development.

"For example, about 30 percent of the energy consumed in our country comes off federal lands. That is about the same proportion we are right now getting from Iraq. That is a chunk that I would hate to see diminish," she said.

"That is the crux of the challenges we face on every front, that issue of balance," she says about managing 264 million acres in Western states, or a fifth of all land there. Clarke is essentially the largest landlord in the West, and in Utah.

Clarke just completed her first year as BLM director. She has used it to focus on that search for proper balance, and bringing battling groups together somehow to find it.

"Certainly, we're in an arena where the conflicts are tremendous," she says. "There are groups on the far edges of the spectrum on both sides that perhaps may resist coming to the table because they see it as a surrender or a compromise."

She adds that some might want her to force their point of view on others, such as one Western congressman, who represents many cattlemen. He gave her a whip as a symbol that she should whip environmentalists into shape.

Instead, her main tool is talking. "We need to build common respect and understanding. And it begins with talking with one another," she said.

Fostering stewardship

"To my delight, I have found numerous instances where that is working," Clarke says, adding that she started by working with groups in the middle of the spectrum.

"There is a wonderful example in Las Cienegas in Arizona, near Tucson," she says about rangeland that was in dire need of revitalization. Ranchers and environmental groups came together with the BLM to work on a management plan.

"They have worked together tirelessly," she said. "They have been able to revitalize this land and turn it around. It is now an incredibly productive and improving situation."

She said the BLM manager in that area complained at first that bringing together all sides was grueling and much tougher than the days when he could merely write a management plan by himself.

But he realized at the end when all the groups had bought into the plan, he had 700 permanent volunteers who wanted to help implement it. "I told him, 'You are a lucky man. You have a whole community that now values the idea of citizen stewardship. And it will help you in making this (plan) work.' "

Clarke said she has developed a "wonderful working relationship with some of the more moderate environmental groups: the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Lands and groups interested in wildlife."

But she doesn't enjoy such relationships with many larger national environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club or Wilderness Society. "We certainly don't see eye to eye, but I try to keep an open door and encourage dialogue."

Those groups tend to vigorously attack the Bush administration for virtually all of its public lands stands.

The comfort zone

Maybe because the BLM director is a natural target for them, the administration could not fill Clarke's spot during its first year. She even turned it down the first time it was offered because she was happy in Utah and didn't want to leave.

But when the White House offered it a second time — on the day of her son's wedding — she remembered a speech she heard President Bush give, encouraging "getting out of your comfort zone . . . and doing something where you can give back."

She said, "I realized that this West I loved was challenged with growth . . . and that perhaps by accepting this opportunity I could help influence the changing West and help preserve something I cared about. So I called the White House back and said I'm still game if you want me to do this."

She said she has spent her year since then largely to help "refocus ourselves around a balanced multiple-use mission that has an emphasis on this citizen stewardship."

In that time, she has appointed nine new state BLM directors. There are only 12. She says they all share her vision. For the first time ever, she has also had conferences to bring together all of the chairmen of the BLM's 28 Resource Advisory Councils to address land issues.

One early disappointment, however, was finding that she could not be involved in most issues affecting Utah — because she had just been the director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. Attorneys told her the first week on the job she had to recuse herself for a year on any issue she had worked on there.

"That's been frustrating. I care so deeply about my home state, and there were so many things that I came back thinking, 'Gee, I can help with this,' " she said. That year is now up, but she said she will still likely recuse herself from such things as land trades and other specific issues in the state.

'Spiritual connectivity'

Clarke said she is happy she finally agreed to take the job despite its challenges.

"I do see it as an opportunity to affect the way that things are going to unfold in the West" and to preserve important lands and resources, she said.

Then, looking at the photo of the Grand Tetons on her wall, she becomes a bit emotional. She talks about how, when she was a child, her father was a busy doctor. The only time the family could be truly with him — and away from pagers, the phone and the hospital — was when he took them to the Grand Tetons or Lake Powell.

"I just remember the very spiritual connectivity I formed with the land," she said. "To this day, you can see it is something that is dear to me. . . .

"Certainly, it would be my desire that as we manage public lands, we do so in a way that maintains those wonderful values that are so healing to us all and so restorative."


E-mail: lee@desnews.com