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Washington Talk; Farewells, Fond and Otherwise, for Land Director


Published: July 5, 1989

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A little-known official has just completed a stormy tenure as the Federal Government's biggest landlord.

Many users of the public lands were pleased with the performance of Robert F. Burford, a laconic Colorado rancher and mining engineer, who resigned last week after more than eight years of managing the public range as Director of the Bureau of Land Management.

''We think he did a great job,'' said Patty McDonald, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which represents 27,000 cattle and sheep ranchers. ''We are sorry to see him go. We think he did a lot of good things for livestock raisers and for the nation as a whole.''

But others, including conservationists and members of Congress who oversee the administration of Federal lands, said they hope they have seen the last of Mr. Burford, who was brought to town by President Ronald Reagan's first Interior Secretary, James G. Watt.

''My message is, 'Goodbye, good riddance, don't come back,' '' said Representative Mike Synar, the Oklahoma Democrat who is chairman of the House Government Operations Committee's Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee.

The harsh criticism matched some of the emotions generated by Mr. Burford's wife, Anne M. Burford, during her tenure as President Reagan's first Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She was forced to resign in 1983 amid Congressional investigations into mismanagement in cleaning up toxic wastes. A Lengthy Tenure

In a recent interview Mr. Burford said he is satisfied with his record, asserting that he is leaving the nearly 300 million acres of grassland, forest and desert managed by the bureau in better shape than he found it. He said he has modernized the bureau, bringing it ''from the 19th century into the 20th century.''

Mr. Burford, whose tenure as Director was one of the longest in bureau history, also said he helped end the ''sagebrush rebellion'' by Western ranchers and other economic interests who were trying to transfer the control of Federal lands to state or private hands. He did so, he said, by seeing to it that the Federal Government, which controls a majority of the land in many Western states, is sensitive to the needs of all users of the public range.

But environmentalists say that despite some marginal improvements, the range is in terrible shape because the land bureau under Mr. Burford did little to stop overgrazing and helped make coal and other minerals from public lands available at bargain-basement prices.

Terry Sopher, an expert on public lands for the Wilderness Society and a former official in the Bureau of Land Management, said property managed by the bureau has ''some of the most spectacular and special natural values on America's public lands.'' But, he said, ''Bob Burford pursued policies which have resulted in the destruction and degradation of many of those places.'' Claim of Discrimination

Representative Synar, whose family are ranchers in Oklahoma, said Mr. Burford served his personal interests and the interests of other ranchers who use the public range by providing subsidies in the form of cheap grazing and water. In so doing, he ''discriminated against the other 98 percent of ranchers,'' Mr. Synar said.

Mr. Synar said Mr. Burford was supposed to divest himself of permits to graze cattle on public land to avoid a conflict of interest when he took over the bureau, which issues such permits. Instead, the Congressman said, Mr. Burford transferred the rights to partnerships that included his family.

Mr. Burford's office did not respond to requests for comment on this charge, which was made after the interview with Mr. Burford. But he had said earlier that similar assertions were ''a new bottle but the same old sour wine.'' He said, ''It seems that some of my old friends on the Hill and among the special-interest groups just can't say goodbye.''

Mr. Burford, who is 66 years old, presided over the bureau at a period that marked a new era in the use of public lands in the West. He was instrumental in interpreting the Federal Land Management and Protection Act of 1976, which required that the public range be managed in ways that protect wildlife and the environment and provide recreation for the public as well as provide grazing, timber and minerals for industry. Computerization of Records

Among his accomplishments, Mr. Burford said, are the completion of a huge backlog of permits to drill and mine on the public lands, establishment of a new system for selling rights to drill for oil on Federal land and improved monitoring of Federal rangeland. He said he had also instituted a policy for rehabilitating land along streams that was damaged or destroyed by cattle, and brought about a new policy to improve wildlife habitat and recreation on the public range.

Perhaps one of his most important acts, he said, was to computerize the bureau's land records, some of them so old that they bear the signatures of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Keith Knoblock, vice president of the American Mining Congress, said Mr. Burford ''has done a wonderful job of promoting and forging strong links between the B.L.M. and the mining industry, something that has not happened in recent memory.''

But David Alberswerth, director of the public lands division of the National Wildlife Federation, the nation's biggest conservation group, said the 1976 law was supposed to end the ''old domination of the commercial livestock and mining interests over the land.'' To the contrary, he said, ''Burford successfully set back the clock. That was his agenda.''

Representative Bruce F. Vento, a Minnesota Democrat who is chairman of the House Interior Committee's Public Lands and Parks Subcommittee, said Mr. Burford ''was more of an opponent than proponent'' of the law. Mr. Vento insisted that Mr. Burford had been ''a willing captive of cattlemen and miners.'' Environmental Group Critical

Johanna H. Wald, senior attorney and public lands expert for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said Mr. Burford had left behind ''an underfunded, understaffed, demoralized agency.'' Because of the emphasis on exploiting the forage, timber and minerals of the range, the number of wildlife biologists and recreation specialists has plunged, she said.

Noting recent reports by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, that the bureau's rangeland and land along streams were in poor condition, Ms. Wald said that while ''I couldn't say Burford left the lands in absolutely worse shape than he found them, the agency while he was director did not prove to be a good steward of the lands. Whatever improvement there was was trivial.''

But Mr. Burford insisted he had managed public range as the law intended: for multiple use representing the widest variety of interests.

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