Robert F. Burford, director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, was accused at a House hearing yesterday of approving regulatory and policy changes that may have enhanced the value of his Colorado ranch land and two federal grazing permits held by his three sons.
Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), chairman of the Goverment Operations subcommittee on environment, energy and natural resources, said "the evidence is clear" that Burford broke a formal promise not to make any decisions affecting the grazing permits, which he transferred to his sons after taking the Interior job in 1981.
In the last five years, Synar said, Burford has approved numerous rules and two controversial policy changes beneficial to ranchers holding permits to graze their cattle on federal land. In at least two cases, according to documents released at the hearing, the changes proved directly beneficial to his family's permits.
Burford disagreed, contending that he had promised to excuse himself only from decisions affecting his family's permits, and not grazing permits in general.
"I did not believe I was recusing myself from those general applications," he said.
"At the time I signed the rule changes , I did not own any grazing permits. I owned land, but the permits were not in my name," Burford said.
Synar argued that Burford benefited from the decisions because the grazing permits affected the value of his land holdings.
In general, ranch land is valued according to the number of animals it can support, and the terms of a grazing permit are critical in determining herd size.
"The record will show that your actions had a direct effect" on the terms of the permits, Synar told the BLM chief.
When he was nominated for the director's job in 1981, Burford owned a 9,600-acre ranch near Grand Junction in western Colorado and held two permits to graze his cattle on nearby federal land. Federal law prohibits BLM employes from having any interest in land or resources administered by the agency.
Burford transferred the land to Little Park Ranches Limited, a partnership consisting of himself, his former wife and three sons, and sold the grazing permits to a second partnership, Burford Industries.
Burford retained a 25 percent interest in Little Park Ranches but was not a part of Burford Industries, which held the permits and leased land from Little Park Ranches. Burford told the Office of Government Ethics that the legal arrangement would allow him to retain interest in his land as a retirement investment.
The ethics office, however, decided that the arrangement would leave the BLM director "in retention of interests" to the grazing permits. A few days later, then-secretary James G. Watt granted Burford a waiver from the law after Burford signed a statement promising not to make "any decisions which directly affect Bureau of Land Management grazing permits which I now own."
Burford said he could not recall excusing himself from any case involving grazing permits.
According to documents gathered by Synar's panel, Burford approved two sets of regulatory changes that gave permit holders more discretion in the use of federal land, including the number of animals to be grazed there.
In 1982, he signed a policy statement that gave priority for federal range-improvement funds to certain categories of grazing land. A year later, a BLM advisory board in Colorado put the Burford lands into the top category for improvement funds.
In 1983, Burford signed a highly controversial change in policy that permitted private ranchers to hold water rights on federal lands.
Burford acknowledged yesterday that the BLM director in Colorado protested the change, arguing that it would give the BLM no more control over federal water "than over a bar of soap in a supermarket."
Shortly after the new policy was issued, Burford's sons and three other ranchers filed for the water rights on their BLM grazing land, an action that could assure access to water for their animals in time of drought.