WASHINGTON, DC--The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is in the midst of an unprecedented effort to pay private contractors to design key land use plans, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). An agency interim report gives contractors mixed grades, citing greater costs, uncertain evaluation and instances where contractors were "operating on their own agenda."
BLM is the nation's principal land management agency, controlling some 261 million acres, an area larger than all Park Service, Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife Service lands combined. With a ten-year backlog of BLM planning projects slowing a Bush Administration drive to accelerate energy production on public lands, Congress appropriated an additional $40 million over three years to jumpstart the program.
Today, BLM is completely contracting out 17 land use plans that guide mining, oil and gas production, logging, recreational use, and wildlife protection across great swathes of the American West. Consultants are also writing portions of an additional 23 plans. The agency is in the second of a ten-year effort to update or create its entire base of 189 land use plans. The draft report evaluating the experience with contracting finds several unsettling aspects:
Higher Costs. Contracting is generally more expensive than doing the plans in-house. In El Centro (California), for example, the original cost estimate for the plan was $700,000 but the contractor ended up costing $1.3 million, almost double the original estimate. But, the report notes, "Ultimately, even at this price the draft was unacceptable to the BLM and was rewritten by BLM staff."
Private Agendas. BLM offices cite cases where contractors had "strong biases," would rewrite agency conclusions or "seemed to have a political agenda in writing the draft."
Uncertain Evaluation. Local offices also express frustration over unclear standards for product quality, excessive amount of staff time needed to train contractors and "significant learning curves for both contractors and BLM."
Overall, however, the draft report finds that "local offices are generally quite pleased with contracting for land use plans" but notes "a concern among evaluators that this satisfaction with contracting is based more upon relief from the planning workload than it is on the products produced." The report repeatedly cites BLM's failure "to plan to plan" as the reason for the backlog and need to contract.
"This report offers a cautionary tale for Bush Administration plans to widely outsource federal land management functions. Contracting is a tool for land managers, not a substitute for BLM managing public lands," commented PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "Unfortunately, BLM is still failing ‘to plan to plan' and instead Congress is only funding plans that expedite oil and gas production."