By John Ruhs
State Director, BLM Nevada
October marks the 40th anniversary of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which was signed into law on Oct. 21, 1976. It may be a little known anniversary to most people in Nevada but it is very important to employees of the Bureau of Land Management because it marks the day we were given a mission and a mandate by the President and Congress to manage public lands for multiple use and sustained yield for current and future generations. But the 40th anniversary of FLPMA, as it is refereed to today, is also important to the people of Nevada. If you care about Nevada’s spectacular natural landscapes, the BLM protects these landscapes—breathtaking mountains, valleys, deserts, and forests—for current and future generations to enjoy. If you care about clean energy, the BLM is a major leader in making solar, wind, and geothermal energy possible. If you care about wildlife, the BLM manages more wildlife habitat than any other Federal agency. If you value access to the public lands in Nevada, the BLM offers more opportunities to enjoy the outdoors than any other Federal agency. These and many more reasons are why people of Nevada should celebrate FLPMA along with us.
We lived in interesting times when President Ford picked up his signature pen on October 21, 1976. The nation had just celebrated its Bicentennial, gasoline was about 56 cents a gallon, a loaf of bread cost about 30 cents, the Cincinnati Reds were up 3 games to 0 over the New York Yankees in the World Series (the Reds won it in a sweep later that night), and “Disco Duck” was the #1 pop song in the land (though I deny any knowledge of actually dancing to it myself).The next night, President Ford would complete his third and final presidential debate with former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in an election just a few weeks away.So there was a lot at stake on October 21, 1976, and getting President Ford to that moment in time had been a monumental journey that was rich and diverse and spanned several Presidential administrations from both major political parties. FLPMA’s origins can be traced to the Public Land Law Review Commission (PLLRC), the idea for which was first suggested to President John F. Kennedy in October 1962 by then Colorado Congressman Wayne N. Aspinall. President Lyndon Johnson eventually signed legislation establishing the commission in September 1964. The PLLRC was charged to “make a comprehensive review of the public land laws and the rules, regulations, policies and practices of Federal, state and local governments and agencies; recommend any necessary modifications and prepare a final report.” The commission worked from 1965 to 1969 and issued a final report to Congress and President Richard M. Nixon in June 1970. The report, titled “One Third of the Nation’s Land” included recommendations “to assure equitable treatment of our citizens and to make the public land laws of the United States and their administration simpler, more effective, and… truly for the maximum benefit for the general public.” It took more than six years and three Congresses — the 92nd, 93rd and 94th — to eventually pass the bill that became the BLM’s “Organic Act.” The first version of the legislation was introduced in 1971 as the National Resources Lands Management Act, but never made it to the full senate during that Congress. It was later reintroduced in the 93rd Congress by U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, who chaired the Interior Affairs Committee. Jackson’s bill passed overwhelmingly (71-1) in July 1974, but went nowhere beyond the Senate.The bill that finally became FLPMA was essentially Jackson’s bill, but was reintroduced in the 94th Congress by U.S. Sen. Floyd K. Haskell of Colorado on January 30, 1975. Haskell, a World War II Army veteran who received the Bronze Star for his work as an intelligence officer, shepherded the bill through committees until it was eventually passed by the full Senate on a 78-11 vote on February 25, 1976. An amended version of the bill was passed by the U.S House of Representatives on July 22, 1976. A joint conference committee was soon convened to reconcile the differences between the two bills. With just a few days remaining before adjournment of the 94th Congress, the committee eventually issued its report on September 29, 1976. The House accepted the committee report a day later, on September 30, 1976 and the Senate did the same on October 1, 1976.
Over the next three weeks, however, the pending legislation was debated in the court of public opinion – during an election year. Referring to the BLM, here is how the New York Times acknowledged the debate over the legislation in an editorial on October 21, 1976: “This little known agency has operated under a myriad of statutes some of which are now outdated and others of which fail to take into account modern conservation practices.”
Mentioning that many opponents of the legislation were urging President Ford to let it die with a pocket veto, the editorial went on to urge that it become law: “Now after lengthy hearings and a protracted House Senate conference, Congress has agreed upon a compromise version of a comprehensive charter for the agency. Although this measure is less than ideal in several respects, its merits outweigh its defects. It deserves President Ford’s signature.”
President Ford did sign it, giving the BLM the multiple-use and sustained yield management mission that guides our agency and our people to this day. The law defines multiple-use management as the “management of public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.” It also defines sustained yield as “the achievement and maintenance in perpetuity of a high-level annual or regular periodic output to the various renewable resources of the public lands consistent with multiple use.”
I know that multiple use also means that reasonable people can have reasonable opinions that differ on the use of public lands, but I am proud that we have, for the most part, a very civil and cooperative working relationship with city, county, state and other federal agency officials across Nevada in working out differences and coming up with solutions. The same is true for how we work with our stakeholders, including ranchers, miners, conservationists, and the public in determining how best to manage public lands in Nevada.
I’ll be honest. I don’t recall hearing about the signing of FLPMA when it occurred. At the time, I was just 18, serving in the Marine Corps. I had other things on my mind back then and had no idea how some new law on land-use would impact my life. But it sure has.So as I reflect on the 40th anniversary of FLPMA, I pay homage to those pioneers and public servants who worked so tirelessly over the years to establish such an important mission for an agency that is uniquely American.
I also salute each and every one of our BLM employees, many of them whom are your friends or neighbors, coaches, volunteers and leaders in their communities. Because as important as FLPMA is, carrying out its mandate is something that can only be done by people – the employees of BLM. I am proud to serve with them as we celebrate this auspicious occasion and continue our important work in serving the people of Nevada.