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Interior’s Kornze: A pickup truck and map yield solutions

June 20, 2016 Laura Curtis

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Neil Kornze is familiar with the tailor-suited formality of congressional hearings, but to get things settled, he prefers to drive a pickup to the land in question, throw a map over the hood and talk it out with the people involved.

“What seems completely intractable yesterday can be solved in most of those conversations,” the director of the Bureau of Land Management says. “It helps to be there.”

The dusty backroads are familiar territory to Kornze, who grew up in Nevada. Sometimes it feels like Senator Harry Reid brought everyone in the Silver State with him to Washington. But by any standard Kornze took a long path before inevitably coming back to work for Reid after interning in his office as an undergraduate.

Kornze earned a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and worked in East Africa before ending up in the waiting area of Reid’s Senate office. He went there just to say hello, and wound up with a job. Now he is running an agency that manages 10 percent of the nation’s land.

We caught up with Kornze at his office in the Interior Building to chat about his new baby boy, how he juggles the bureau’s dual mandate and his favorite neighborhood spot: the Congressional Cemetery.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in Elko, Nevada, surrounded by BLM lands. My parents worked at the gold mines outside of Elko, which are still going. My dad was an exploration geologist, and my mom did all different sorts of support roles.

When I was young we lived in Utah for a number of years and we’d put a camper on the back of our old Ford truck and we’d go down around southern Utah and bounce around back country, visiting some of the national parks. We’d also be out in BLM areas, looking for arrowheads and splashing in desert streams. It was a nice way to grow up.

Were you always on track for a career in public lands?

No, I didn’t know there was a track. I would say public lands is like breathing out there, it is just so pervasive. The mines are on public lands, your weekend recreation is on public lands. If you look just beyond your neighbor’s yard you’re looking at public lands. So that was my upbringing. Reading the front page of the Elko Daily Press was a daily education in public lands politics. I didn’t know that at the time but later I could feel it.

You spent some time in the UK, too, right?

Yes I lived in London for a year starting in 2001. It felt like the capital of Europe in many ways, people were always traveling through. I went to college in a very small community in Washington State, in Walla Walla. It was a long distance from any major city so suddenly being in London and having the UN and foreign secretaries and presidents of other countries stopping by just to say hello to your class was a little mind blowing.

What did you study at LSE?

International relations, which may on the surface sound separated from what we do here. But one of the amazing things about BLM is how interconnected it is. We are involved in oil and gas production and helium production. When I read about major changes in the Chinese economy you can draw that back to the coal program at the BLM. When you hear about changes in the Saudi Arabian governmental system and the new energy minister you can see how that would have an impact on oil and gas production in the states. So it wasn’t a purposeful connection, but it’s proven to be valuable.

So how did you end up in Washington?

I had been an intern for Senator Harry Reid when I was in college and stopped by to say hello as a first step to reconnecting into the D.C. world. (After moving here.) Three days later I got a voicemail saying, “You didn’t inquire about work but we have an opening.” So I was thrilled and took that opportunity. That’s where I realized that public lands and resources was a field. Eventually I became the senator’s natural resources adviser and later his senior policy adviser. I left the Senate after the 2010 election and came into the administration.

Were you expecting your nomination?

No, no. I came over here to learn government from a different angle and was very content to use this as an educational experience. Within a handful of months I went from senior adviser to deputy director and then the previous director retired and I was nominated a short while after. It was not my game plan.

How did you meet your wife? What’s she like?

We were both working on campaigns in Nevada. She’s a First Amendment lawyer, now representing reporters and newspapers. We’ve been married since 2009. But we’ve been together for 12 years. First and foremost she gives me advice; I would have fallen off so many horses along the way if it weren’t for her.

Do you have a favorite public land?

Early in our relationship my wife and I took a trip to the Redwoods and it blew us both away. We were camping and thinking about the breadth of where that forest used to be and what its role played in this country’s development — I just loved the bigger narrative.

What part of D.C. do you live in? Any favorite haunts?

Capitol Hill is the only place I’ve lived in D.C. And yes, we are members of the Congressional Cemetery. We have two small dogs and there’s not many green spaces around Capitol Hill. So you can get on a wait list to become a member, which allows you to take your dogs there, off leash. And the cemetery is full of former vice presidents and senators and members of Congress and Indian chiefs. They do these soul strolls around Halloween where people dress up in costumes and stand in front of a grave and reenact a scene from that person’s life and talk to you from the grave. It’s very well done.

How do you balance “keep it in the ground” with the other side?

Dealing with that kind of conflict is central to BLM’s work and a lot of it comes back to the mission that we’ve been given. If you work for the Park Service, your job is to protect that land for seven generations. If you work for the Fish and Wildlife Service your job is to ensure the propagation of species. If you work for the Bureau of Land Management, our job is to figure out what multiple use and sustained yield means. Those are our twin missions. And it takes a lot of interpretation; a lot of people have strong opinions about what they want to have happen on public lands. On a daily basis we have to be interpreters, table setters, negotiators and fair dealers. There’s a new focus on oil and gas lease sales, but it’s not as though that type of foment is new to the agency.

How does that type of negotiation happen?

I spend a lot of time out West visiting with people on the ground. It helps to be there. When you need to negotiate something tough that relates to a specific landscape very often I find the best thing is to get everyone involved, drive out to that place on some dusty road, roll out a map across the front of a pickup truck and talk it out. So what seems completely intractable yesterday can be solved in most of those conversations.

Anything keeping you up at night — aside from your baby?

Yeah, good point. Making sure that we are setting our team up for success. We manage one in every 10 acres in the country, and 30 percent of the nation’s minerals and soils and we have 9,500 people to do that, which sounds like a big number but we are the smallest of the large land management agencies in the country. And we also have the smallest budget. So figuring out where to prioritize and how to work with all the constituents that we’ve been talking about and how to be as transparent as you possibly can, keeps me up nights.

How does it feel to testify on the Hill?

Over and over my experience has been to prepare a lot. Usually the conversations end up fairly narrow in scope and we get to a few issues. It’s an important part of this job and I’m proud to do it. My expectations were, hopefully, properly calibrated after working on the Hill. Sometimes folks are looking for an information-sharing session and sometimes they’re not.

Do you still have a relationship with Senator Reid?

Yes. It’s a warm relationship. We keep in touch from time to time, just short little conversations.

How do you decompress?

Right now every free moment I have goes to spending time with my son and my wife, which makes me immeasurably happy. So that’s more than enough now. But I’ve endeavored to become a real fly fisherman. In the Spring you’ll occasionally find me out at Fletcher’s Cove casting for shad and various places around in the West. I’m no good at it. The point is getting outside.

We recently took my son for his very first hike on Billy Goat Trail; it was a nice family moment. But hiking is great, I wish I had more time for it. I once did half of the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. That was a wonderful week of my life.

I hear you are an avid mountain biker.

I’ve been fortunate to ride a number of trails on BLM-managed land and on national forests over the last few decades. It’s a great way to see a lot of territory and, if done right, you can do it with a minimal footprint on the land.

When I get the chance to ride around here, it’s usually over in Fort Dupont Park, which is in D.C. It’s not well-known as a mountain biking destination but it offers some solitude, and I can get there without using a car. My wife and I once scared up a couple of wild turkeys while riding through there.

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James O’Connell