Friday, March 25, 2016

The man who's got BLM's back

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

 Steve Ellis acts as a shepherd to the Bureau of Land Management's flock.

The agency's deputy director and highest career official keeps BLM's scattered 10,000 employees in sync with its policymaking headquarters. He picks BLM's state-level directors and recruits career leaders to Washington, D.C.

Ellis also monitors employee morale through incidents such as the 40-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, where some BLM employees became collateral targets in an intensified debate over federal land ownership.

In late January, as the Oregon occupation was in full swing, Ellis made a quiet stop in Burns, Ore., to show appreciation for BLM's district employees, who had been forced to work from home for weeks as militia descended on the town.

"These are my BLM children," Ellis, whose federal career has spanned roughly three dozen years, said during a December hike at BLM's Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. "You can't forget that in this senior career position."

He's a subtle but influential player as BLM continues a major culture shift, one that tries to place resource conservation on par with extraction.

While BLM policy is largely dictated from inside the Beltway, political appointees including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider see Ellis as a key adviser on what will and won't work in the field. A good deputy director will ensure those policies are consistently deployed.

The deputy director post is BLM's most important position, said former BLM Director Bob Abbey. Policies change with a new president, but the BLM workforce will stay largely the same.

"Steve is serving at a critical time," Abbey said. "Given the BLM's aging workforce and the need to replace experienced personnel, he is in the position to bring into the organization fresh, intelligent and gifted leadership and use the strategic hiring of personnel as an opportunity to make positive statements both to employees and the public."

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