No surprise: Report details BLM’s failure managing its finances

Fred Birnbaum Articles

It occurs to me many people believe the management of federal lands in Idaho or the management of public lands in general,  is a relatively simple process – if fires start you put them out, if grazing or logging is needed you apply for a permit. It can be hard to judge the effectiveness of land management unless you have something to compare it to. Yes, we could do fly-overs and compare state and privately managed land to federally managed land, but how many people are going to take the time to do this? Are we going to compare photos of federal land from 50 years ago to today’s rangeland and forests?

What we do have is the federal government’s own reports on how good a job federal agencies do in managing lands.  A September 2014 report by the Department of Interior’s Inspector General’s office concerning the BLM’s Wildland Fire Program, stated, “We found areas of concern with control weaknesses and deficiencies in documentation. Specifically, we identified issues with general internal controls, property management, purchasing cards, and payroll.” The report went on to conclude that BLM’s internal controls had left the agency unable to:

  • Reliably determine the cost of individual fires;
  • Fully account for purchase card purchases;
  • Readily locate either critical or highly pilferable property items; and
  • Thoroughly validate the accuracy of its payroll.

Some problems cited in the report would lead to dismissals in the private sector. In 2011, government credit cards were used to buy $799,000 worth of gift cards to stores like REI and Fred Meyer.  With respect to payroll, it was found that, “staff charged time to fires before the fires even occurred and that at least one employee charged time to a fire approximately 9 months after the fire was out.” On payroll the report concluded, “BLM demonstrated grossly inadequate internal controls when accounting for payroll costs, placing itself at high risk for fraud while simultaneously hampering its ability to substantiate allegations of fraud, were they to occur.” And what resulted from this report? Of the 11 specific recommendations only three were resolved and implemented at the time of publication.

The reason it is important to review the details of this report is to debunk the notion that Western states could not manage federal lands if they were transferred to the states. Fire-fighting costs are often cited as example A. Why should we assume, as critics of federal land transfer do, the annual cost of $250 million to $450 million (depending upon the year and the scope of activities included) for the BLM fire program is something states would replicate?

Fire suppression and fire-fighting costs are one aspect of federal land management and a core program of the BLM. If the BLM is not properly managing a core program why would we assume that their management practices with respect to land health, access and productivity are any better?