BLM's new California desert director, Shelly Lynch, is ready to face the heat

·8 min read
Shelly Lynch is the new district manager for the Bureau of Land Management Desert District in Palm Springs.  She's pictured here at the Randall Henderson Trailhead and the Santa Rosa Mountains in the distance.
Shelly Lynch is the new district manager for the Bureau of Land Management Desert District in Palm Springs. She's pictured here at the Randall Henderson Trailhead and the Santa Rosa Mountains in the distance.

Michelle "Shelly" Lynch's first job for the federal government was as a summer firefighter in the late 1980s. She battled blazes in the Oregon high desert and Idaho for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and put up fencing around the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to help rare plants and animals.

Now, after a three-decade career that involved some time outdoors, but plenty of desk work at public agencies and in the private sector, Lynch, 55, is back in the heat of outdoor action now. She just completed her first full week as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's new California desert district manager.

She'll oversee a vast, beautiful and complicated swath of public lands, stretching more than 11 million acres from the Ridgecrest area along the California-Nevada border to El Centro near the Mexico border. The district's headquarters is in Palm Springs.

"I'm excited. ... This is one of the most unique and complex districts" in the entire agency, Lynch said.

She left a BLM California desk job that was based in Sacramento — she was branch chief for Lands, Planning, and Recreation — to tackle a region where she'll be responsible for everything from large-scale solar and wind farms and drilling and mining projects to popular off-roading and hiking areas, as well as fragile desert habitats and the unique animals and plants in them.

Lynch said while she enjoyed greatly working with BLM's Sacramento staff, and gained a lot of knowledge about recreation and land acquisition and sales, among other topics, "I jumped at the opportunity to lead the California desert region, because I felt the job matches my skill set. ... I want to be immersed in the action and close to the ground."

Lynch replaces Andrew Archuleta, who is now the BLM State Director in Wyoming.

Balancing multiple uses

Among the most pressing issues facing Lynch, say desert public lands advocates, are ensuring scenic areas are not marred by large-scale renewable energy projects such as wind and solar farms, and coping with an explosion of visitors — on foot, in off-road vehicles or on bikes and other equipment.

"First off, I'd say, 'Welcome to the California desert,'" said Chris Clarke, associate director of the California desert program for the National Parks Conservation Association. "The desert needs advocates and defenders. ... I'm really looking forward to working with her to ensure the desert ecosystems aren't written off in the rush to change our society to a renewable energy footing."

Calling the Mojave Desert and Colorado portion of the Sonoran desert "pretty much ground zero" for commercial solar, giant wind turbines, lithium mining and other renewable energy endeavors, Clarke said this area is "also the most intact ecosystem in North America south of the (Alaskan and Canadian) tundra."

"We have a huge wealth of biological diversity; it's a place that's incredibly important to native cultures that live here, and that more and more Americans are turning to in the desert as a place to restore themselves emotionally and spirituality, and there are plenty of places to put solar besides here that are already impacted."

He and other desert environmentalists argue that rooftop solar in urban areas would be a less destructive approach. But national environmental groups and solar companies support the Biden administration and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland's push to streamline and continue permitting major solar projects in designated development zones, including along Interstate 10. Those are policies that Lynch said she supports, and with which BLM is fully aligned.

"In terms of climate change, you know, the BLM supports the Department of Interior and the administration's commitment to tackle the climate crisis and help build a clean energy future," she said.

The same holds for possible hard rock mining or drilling leases.

"BLM's mission is multiple use management, and we work to make balanced decisions, balancing those important resources that the locals are concerned about through our (comment) processes," she said.

She noted millions of acres are also designated as preserved in the BLM's 10.8-million- acre portion of the 22-million-acre California Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a massive amendment to an earlier management plan covering nearly a quarter of interior California that also identified areas for renewables development. Other hot- button issues include litigation involving the 3.6-million-acre West Mojave management plan, and the sometimes-overlooked smaller zones called Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.

BLM's Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area in southeastern California offers miles of off road adventures
BLM's Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area in southeastern California offers miles of off road adventures

Clashes between conservation groups and motorized recreational organizations are another historic challenge in the desert, though the groups share common concerns about solar projects not blocking scenic views, and about overuse, trash and other issues along dirt trails and in backcountry wilderness.

Amy Granat, managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, said she is familiar with Lynch and her work in Sacramento, and thinks she's a great choice to be BLM's desert manager.

"She is well-versed in recreation and recreation issues ... and it's a really, very good fit for a very important district in California, where there's a wide variety of recreation," said Granat.  "We're very pleased to see the appointment and be working with her."

Granat said visitation at many off-road areas has doubled since COVID-19 took hold. Educating the public on proper outdoor principles, like "Leave No Trace" of litter or other signs of visits in the outdoor areas, is another priority.

She'd also like to see BLM expand the acreage open to motorized recreation, noting "overland" exploration — in which small vans and other vehicles explore trails and open space — has increased exponentially.

Clarke said more enforcement is needed. Off-road explorers have posted scenic shots from wilderness areas that are supposed to be closed to motorized traffic, for instance. He said law enforcement personnel at the field offices were swamped and could use more staff and funds.

Lynch said she is not aware of any immediate expansion plans for recreation or wilderness areas, and noted members of Congress sometimes take action on such requests.

Lynch, who earned wildlife resource and business administration degrees, has worked for numerous agencies during her 27-year public career. She can rattle off names of endangered and threatened species in the desert, including desert tortoise, desert pupfish. amargosa vole and flat-tailed horned lizard,  and wrote an internal strategies manual for BLM's California operations.

As the regulatory South Coast branch chief of the U.S. Army Corps' Los Angeles District, she oversaw environmental reviews and permitting for federal mining and grazing leases, among other projects. She also had purview over the Corps' review of California's proposed Salton Sea restoration projects.

Asked whether she thought the fast-dwindling inland water body and its wildlife could be restored, she told The Desert Sun she did not have an answer.

Lynch also worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and has 12 years of state government experience, including as a regional biologist and environmental coordinator for the Oregon Department of Transportation. Lynch also managed the natural resources department for a private engineering firm.

Asked about her top priorities for the desert district, Lynch demurred, saying she plans to visit each of five district offices first to see and hear from more than 250 staff on what their top issues are, "and learn how I can, through my leadership, move those issues forward." She's starting those field office visits immediately, she said, despite the searing summer heat.

She said while she's not used to triple-digit temperatures, "I'm doing well. it's an adjustment, but I think I'll do just fine."

She laughed as she recalled a 108-degree day years ago in the field with the Army Corps, saying "my contact lenses dried out very quickly."

But as an avid hiker, kayaker and outdoors person, she's confident she can handle the physical challenges. Lynch, who was born near Seattle, grew up in Sherwood, Oregon, what was then a rural Oregon agricultural community but is now a suburb of Portland. "Cutting firewood was a family event growing up; it was our primary heat source," she said.

She said from the time she was 2 years old, her father, an electrician by trade, was an avid outdoorsman who took her fishing and camping, fostering a lifelong love of nature.

"We spent a lot of time up in the mountains. ... My dad really cultivated my love of fishing holes, and edible plants, and the names of trees. I was literally catching fish from 2 years old; he would stand me up on the seat of a boat on a lake to fish."

Lynch said she's eager to visit two of the district's most iconic and well-used areas: the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, also known as Glamis, and the Dumont Dunes recreation area, both beloved by the off-roading community. But she'll hold off until the fall, when temperatures cool down.

"That shows you what a common sense person she is," quipped Granat. She added that it was critical for Lynch to see the crowds that flock to the dunes, starting in late fall.

Lynch says she'll get there, and also looks forward to hiking the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains and other wilderness areas that are BLM's closest equivalent to national parks. "For sure. I want to get out and spend some time looking. ... We've got some amazing national monuments. ... My primary focus is to get to know the people here and the landscapes."

Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun, and co-authors USA Today's Climate Point newsletter. She can be reached at jwilson@gannett.com or @janetwilson66 on Twitter  

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: BLM's new California desert director, Shelly Lynch, is ready to face the heat