This Land is Your Land
Photo credit: Robert Wick, Bureau of Land Management
Neil Kornze ’00 controls a third of U.S. land. Kornze talks energy, conservation and trekking across the country with Senator Harry Reid.
By Daniel F. Le Ray
Neil Kornze ’00 is responsible for a large swath of land of the United States.
As the director of the Bureau of Land Management – part of the U.S. Department of the Interior – Kornze oversees nearly 250 million acres of land and more than 700 million acres of subsurface minerals across the country.
“I think that runs out to maybe 11 to 13 percent of the surface of the nation,” Kornze said. Adding those underground minerals, “we end up managing almost a third of the country.”
Kornze grew up in Elko, Nevada, surrounded by acres of wild and rugged landscape. The mountains and deserts of his youth are looked after by the BLM, and as a child, he became curious about how land management worked: How did backcountry roads come into existence? What were the ins and outs of damming rivers like the Columbia?
“I grew up in a mining family myself,” he said. “And so I very much saw the world through a lot of public land questions.”
Now, he is charged with leading the organization that helps make many of those decisions.
At the BLM, “we do everything from making sure that energy is available and flowing to [protecting] some of the most incredible wild lands in North America.”
Politics wasn’t on his mind when Kornze arrived at Whitman: he thought he would major in geology or math, but the breadth of class experiences in his first year turned him on to the social sciences, and he eventually became a politics major.
The town of Walla Walla was also an important part of his college experience.
“I don’t mean to be cliché, but I will never forget my first sunset up in the wheat fields,” he said.
After Whitman, Kornze applied for a Fulbright – which he didn’t get – but still decided to travel abroad. He spent several months working in Tanzania learning about international policy before heading to graduate school.
In the London School of Economics’ International Relations program, he enjoyed listening to and meeting a plethora of high-profile speakers, and the thrill of living in “the capital of Europe.”
“England seemed like…a middle point between the world I knew and the world I was trying to get to know,” he said.
Returning to the U.S. after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Kornze considered applying to government defense jobs, but instead landed an entry-level position with Senator Harry Reid. Slowly but surely,
Kornze’s expertise in public land issues became clear and he took on an important role in Reid’s office.
“That’s sort of indicative of Capitol Hill,” he said. “There is an unbelievable amount of opportunity if you prove your worth in the early days.”
He worked with Reid in his home state, “flying off to Nevada, renting a four-wheel rig from the airport and getting out to some of the most incredible places in the West.”
After Reid was reelected in the 2010 midterms, Kornze joined the Bureau of Land Management as a Senior Adviser to the Director, working primarily on energy issues. A few promotions later, the U.S. Senate was confirming Kornze as the youngest-ever director of the bureau.
His ascent seems to be a combination of hard work and modest ambition.
“I’ve always been interested in leadership, but I’ve never been the sort of person who felt bold enough to say: ‘I want to be the director of the BLM,’ or ‘I want to be a U.S. Senator.’ But I do feel fortunate that opportunities opened up and I was able to take a swing at it,” Kornze said.
Energy production is one of the most important and controversial aspects of Kornze’s work. The BLM works to develop oil, gas and coal energy resources as well as wind, solar and geothermal, and one of the biggest challenges is finding the right space. Recently, for example, 17 locations in the American West have been identified as solar plant locations, each taking up thousands of acres.
“We try to be very careful about finding the right places. We have to be in regular contact with any Native American tribes that might be impacted, with state and historical preservation offices, with Fish and Wildlife Service and often with many other organizations.”
While oil and gas production is part of the nation’s energy plan, the BLM is also tasked with conservation and preservation, which might seem counterintuitive. President Obama recently issued an executive order for federal agencies to be using 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, and the BLM has already approved 51 utility-scale renewable energy projects, which comprise 28 solar facilities, 11 wind farms and 12 geothermal plants.
Kornze himself describes the BLM’s vision of conservation in two ways. One is a more conventional understanding of “maximizing the use of what’s available and making sure it’s not wasted,” providing the regulatory framework, for example, to prevent natural gas being wasted through venting and flaring.
The second is preserving and protecting beautiful public lands, a part of the BLM’s work that was truly embraced under former Secretary Bruce Babbitt in the 1990s.
“Around 10 percent of the land we manage has some kind of protective status,” Kornze said. And during his administration, President Obama has used the Antiquities Act – which allows the creation of protected areas – 11 times, five of those either to create or expand Conservation Areas.
Kornze’s team is engaged in creating new ways to share the beauty of these spaces with younger generations. Cellphone applications can now help you traverse outdoor public trails, for example, while the BLM posts regular updates on social media platforms such as Tumblr (mypubliclands.tumblr.com).
In particular, younger campers, hikers and climbers seem to be eager for what Kornze calls “wild or less proscriptive experiences. There’s an increased excitement about the BLM offering that kind of backcountry experience.”
By all accounts, Kornze excels at every aspect of his job. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has praised his leadership skills. At Whitman’s 2014 Commencement, Jewell said, “He’s really a natural, strong leader. He started his job just as we had some people bringing armed militias into public lands to stare down the BLM over cattle that had been illegally grazing on public lands for over 20 years.”
She added: “Neil jumped right into the hot flames of the fire and did a terrific job.”
With so much responsibility, it must get pretty hectic. “People at all levels of the organization are making big, fundamental decisions on a daily basis,” Kornze said. “So it’s a pretty exciting place to be.”