Former Oregon "biodiversity member" takes over in Arizona

BLM's state director is used to land tiffs

Elaine Zielinski
Tim Koors/The Arizona Republic
"Everybody has strong feelings about how public land should be managed," says Elaine Zielinski, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's new director for Arizona.

By Shaun McKinnon
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 21, 2002

Elaine Zielinski moved to Phoenix from Portland, Ore., to start her new job Aug. 5 as state director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and yes, she's already heard the part about this being a dry heat and already knows it's bunk once the mercury tops 110 degrees.

But aside from the climatic jolt that comes with trading the Northwest forests for the Southwest deserts, the core issues facing Zielinski in Arizona aren't all that different from those she left behind in Oregon.

"Everybody has strong feelings about how public land should be managed," said Zielinski, 51. "The passion I see that people bring to the table is the same anywhere. They feel so strongly - they're really concerned because they care."

There's a lot to care about: The BLM oversees 11.6 million acres across Arizona, one-fifth of the state's land base, and administers 33 million acres of below-surface mineral activities. Included in the agency's Arizona portfolio are five national monuments, three national conservation areas, 47 wilderness areas, two wilderness study areas and part of a national historic trail.

One of Zielinski's first priorities will be helping develop resource management plans for Arizona's five new national monuments, including Agua Fria, about 40 miles north of central Phoenix. The plans will bring together many of the BLM's diverse interest groups, including ranchers, off-road enthusiasts, hikers and preservation groups.

"My philosophy is that local folks, the folks closest to the issues, make the best decisions," Zielinski said. "I want to get them involved from the beginning. My role will be to facilitate that, to get them the resources they need."

She said one of her goals is to help the various interests better understand each other by encouraging strong communication and a lot of listening. She promises the same in return, though she can't guarantee much else.

"You listen, but you might not agree or do what they propose," she said. "At some point, you have to take action, and that is not going to make everybody happy."

Zielinski grew up in an Air Force family and lived in Japan, the Philippines and England, an upbringing that instilled a love of travel. She has revisited her English home and toured China once to study land management issues.

A 25-year veteran of the BLM, Zielinski had never aspired to a career in natural resource management. She earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and joined Gillette Co. in Chicago as an accountant. When Gillette decided to move its offices to Boston, Zielinski decided she preferred Chicago and took her first federal government position.

Since joining the BLM a few years later, she's worked in Colorado, Oregon, Washington state and Washington, D.C., and now Arizona, where she replaced longtime director Denise Meridith, who retired in May.

Zielinski looks back now and realizes how much of her training was on-the-job, just as it was for many people in the agency during the late 1970s, when some of the first national environmental protection acts passed. "We kind of made the rules as we went along," she said. "It was great. I can say in all my years, I have never, ever been bored one single day."

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Note:  Zielinski is an advisor to The Biodiversity Partnership, created to carry on the work of the Oregon Biodiversity Project. The project pioneered a "new, collaborative approach to conservation planning that produced a big-picture view of conservation priorities for Oregonís native species and the habitats and ecosystems that support them. " It's also affiliated with  Defenders of Wildlife.


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