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Public Lands Agency Ordered Staff to Promote Oil and Gas on Social Media

Staff at the Bureau of Land Management were instructed to share photos of fossil fuel development on the agency’s Flickr page, FOIA documents reveal.

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson

Image: Flickr/BLM Wyoming

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.

Images of fossil fuel development from BLM's Flickr page in April. Image: Flickr

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.

Screenshot: BLM FOIA documents.

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.”

Screenshot: BLM FOIA documents.

By April 4, BLM’s social media team had created a Google Drive folder for multiple use photos. “Remember, we are looking for five total photos and caption info by the end of April,” Backus wrote the team. On April 18, another email was sent, reminding the team to promote the agency’s multiple use mandate online. Suggested topics were rangeland management, prescribed burns (the controlled burning of wildfires to prevent fuel buildup), and extreme sports.

“Take this week to brainstorm, and come prepared to discuss how we can move closer to representing commercial, recreation and conservation equally across social media,” Backus wrote to BLM social media staff on May 9.

“Sensitive/controversial topics: Please pay attention to sensitive topics and post appropriately. The list of monuments under review can be found here," the same email stated. It’s unclear what Backus linked to, but the Interior Department had recently posted this list of monuments that Secretary Zinke would be evaluating for changes.

Screenshot: BLM FOIA documents.

No photos of Bears Ears National Monument or Grand Staircase-Escalante, which were frequently showcased on BLM’s Flickr page under President Obama, were posted after this email was sent.

“Once the monument review began, it was important that we ensure messaging regarding BLM-managed national monuments could not be misconstrued as promoting one point of view over another while the review was underway,” BLM spokesperson Jeff Krauss told me.

“[The categorization of monuments as “sensitive/controversial topics” is] is concerning from the concept of what BLM’s job is, and its obligation to the American people. It’s rather disingenuous when people are supposed to be commenting,” said Nada Culver, senior director of The Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center.

“This is the visual blueprint for making energy development and extractive uses the most important part of BLM’s multiple use mission,” Culver added. “Pictures are the photographic record of how this administration is looking to narrow that definition.”

BLM faced similar criticism in April when its homepage was updated to feature a photo of a coal seam.

At the time, according to records obtained by Sierra Club, an environmental nonprofit, Allen praised the change in an email to BLM communications staff, saying, “I stand behind the decision to use the photo. Coal powers America, and we play an important part in getting that coal from the ground to the grid.” But, in a separate email discussing talking points, Allen wrote: “FYI. Energy independence was a stated priority for both the SEC and POTUS.”

BLM defended its Flickr update to me, stressing that it only intended to show its multiple use mission. Equally important initiatives, such as renewable energy, were never mentioned in emails included in my FOIA request.

“Our Flickr album should accurately portray the myriad uses of public lands and that is the course we embarked upon. Not a pivot, just an effort to ensure the images in our album accurately reflect our multiple use mission,” said Krauss.

Zinke’s Interior Department has dramatically overhauled its priorities—elevating fossil fuels to the top of its agenda. Oil, gas, and coal executives now sit on agency committees, while Zinke spends a disproportionate amount of time meeting with industry officials. Agency work that threatens fossil fuels, like climate change research, has been intentionally sidelined from public view. The BLM’s climate change webpage, which was taken down earlier this year—the page “is under review for editing and is expected to go back up,” BLM spokesperson Megan Crandall told me in August—is still missing.

“The Interior Department is in the energy business,” said Zinke in March.

From the get-go, the Trump administration has managed the way agencies communicate to the public. Government websites and the information they provide have been heavily sanitized as a result. Popular Flickr pages, apparently, aren't an exception.