2,000 Mile Screwdrivers and BLM: A Metaphor

Pengilly's, Main Street, Boise, Idaho

Pengilly’s, Main Street, Boise, Idaho

WC attended a panel discussion among land use and land policy professional recently. It was pretty interesting. To start with, it was in a pub, which is always a plus.1 More importantly, WC supposes, many of the panelists were retired from earlier careers and felt perhaps a bit less constrained about speaking candidly. As a result, we heard some amazing, highly pertinent stories.

An example: WC has written earlier about the perils of abbreviations: they are a barrier to communication because it’s not always obvious what they may stand for. One of the panelists had a real gem: during the Bundy brothers’ illegal seizure of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, he was contacted by one of the major news networks. Why, the network reporter asked this land policy specialist, was the Bundy family so angry with Black Lives Matter? There was a long pause on the Idaho end of the call. “BLM,” the local specialist explained, “Stands for ‘Bureau of Land Management,’ a primary land owner in the American West.”

Apart from the demonstrating a second peril of abbreviations – they can have multiple meanings and can create confusion – the story underscores the frustrations and difficulties of managing western lands from the east coast: those folks sometimes just don’t have a clue.

Another panelist called it the 2,000 mile screwdriver: the handle may be in Washington, D.C. but the screws are in the western states. When you combine ignorance of what the screws do with the screwdriver handle being 2,000 miles away, you have a situation that is fraught.2

But what may have been most interesting about the panel discussion was the complete consensus among the panelists that the metaphoric 2,000 mile screwdriver was much better than any of the alternatives.

There are very real, existential threats to the Great Basin and the Intermountain West. One panelist described the three biggest threats as wildfire and invasives, wildfire and invasives and, yes, wildfire and invasives. In some respects, those two overwhelming issues overlap. WC has written earlier about the role of cheatgrass in range fires; it’s an instance of an invasive species seriously aggravating the range fire risk. Similarly, climate change – the Great Basin is trending dryer as temperatures climb – is directly and indirectly killing the mountain forests. Directly, by depriving them of water and exposing them to higher temperature ranges. Indirectly, by weakening them and making them susceptible to fungal and insect pests that otherwise they could handle.

Unfortunately, climate changes, invasives and wildfire don’t respect county lines or state lines. They are an interstate problem, not the problem of any single municipality or state. Managing those threats does require a single, interstate control. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s lame effort to regionalize the national system ignores the reality that the threats don’t respect his arbitrary regions, either. And largely ignores the other problem that the forests are managed by the Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, not by the Department of the Interior.

The solution to the problems created by the 2,000 mile screwdriver, as the B.L.M. story suggests, is education of the folks in Washington, D.C. That requires a willingness to learn on their part, of course. And the panel agreed that’s not likely with the current folks in charge.


  1. The pub in question is Pengilly’s, a long-time Boise watering hole and music venue. Those of you who have lived in Fairbanks a while will recognize the name. Yes, Public defender and Superior Court Judge Chuck Pengillly (Retired) is related. WC thanks Pengilly’s for hosting the forum. 
  2. The screwdriver is 4,000 miles long in the case of Alaska, and the ignorance even greater.