In March, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) flooded its Flickr page with photos of oil wells and mining pits. The transformation was meant to boost the visibility of fossil fuel development on public lands, according to internal emails obtained by Motherboard through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Federal law requires the agency to balance the uses of public lands, including commercial ones, for the needs of the people, and with citizen input. The decision to replace scenic vistas with literal lumps of coal on Flickr was admonished by conservationists who oppose the prioritization of development on BLM lands.
“The…Flickr page, long a repository of gorgeous parks and public lands photos, appears to have a new focus: coal, oil and other fossil fuels,” wrote The Wilderness Society, a conservation nonprofit, at the time.
BLM, which is part of the Interior Department, stewards 248.3 million acres of public land. Zinke’s Interior Department has largely ignored public outcry against altering public lands, like the national monument review, which resulted in unprecedented cuts to Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante last week.
Emails to BLM communications staff reveal the Flickr changes were mandated by leadership, either within BLM or at the Interior Department. Who, specifically, requested the change is unclear. Under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the agency’s online presence would be “communicating multiple use[s]”—commercial, recreational, and conservation-focused—of public lands.
“Leadership is paying attention to how we are distributing content across the commercial, recreation and conservation categories,” wrote Alyse Backus, BLM social media lead and public affairs specialist, to a BLM social media listserv in May.
I submitted a FOIA request in March for BLM records related to the pivot. This week, I received 32 pages of emails and memos, which were released to me in their entirety.
The timeline of BLM’s revamp was short: On March 16, an email was sent to a small group of BLM staff by Matthew Allen, who was then the agency’s communications assistant director, and has since been transferred to another Interior Department agency for unclear reasons. By the end of March, dozens of fossil fuel photos were uploaded to BLM’s Flickr page.
“Effective immediately we need to take steps to re-emphasize the BLM’s multiple use mission in all of our communications,” Allen wrote.
Allen broke this down into three categories: commercial, recreational, and conservation-focused.
He presented a plan to transform BLM’s public image. Staff were to promote lease sales to the media, stress commercial use in external engagements and Hill testimonies, and re-decorate BLM offices with artwork to “more closely represent the three broad categories above.”