Western lands fight erupts over Bureau of Land Management’s conservation proposal
U.S. Interior Secretary Debra Harland testifies during her confirmation hearing in February 2021 in Washington, D.C. Haaland has defended an administration proposal that she said puts conservation of public lands on an equal footing with other uses. (Photo by Leigh Vogel-Pool/Getty Images)
One thing opponents and proponents of a recently proposed U.S. Bureau of Land Management rule agree on: It would be a major shift in how the agency manages nearly 250 million acres of federal lands.
The rule would allow for conservation leases, similar to how the agency auctions off parcels of land for mining, livestock grazing or oil and gas development. Supporters say the proposal would lift conservation to the level of extractive uses, a responsible move to protect lands affected by climate change.
Outraged opponents — including many congressional Republicans — view the rule as a drastic overreach that violates existing law. Fears that conservation leases would evict grazing permittees and others have only been stoked by Republican rhetoric on the issue.
“The BLM has time and again shown their aim is to drastically reduce, or even eliminate, grazing on public lands, and this proposed rule is the latest iteration of this effort,” Washington Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse said in a May 22 statement announcing a bill to block the proposed rule.
But the rule would have little to no impact on existing users of federal lands, the proposal’s supporters say.
They say opponents have been led astray by an inherent distrust of President Joe Biden’s administration, apprehension about a big change in the agency that manages their livelihoods, or fed misinformation by oil and gas allies.
“There has been a lot of confusion around the proposed rule,” Danielle Murray, senior legal and policy director with the advocacy group Conservation Lands Foundation, said on a press call. “There’s false claims that this rule would kick ranchers off their land, it would mean the end of oil and gas development, it would lock the public out.
“The facts are that the proposed rule explicitly states it does not undermine or impact any valid existing rights.”
John Gale, the vice president of policy and government relations with the nonpartisan conservation group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said he was surprised at the immediacy of the opposition.
“It feels a little knee-jerk,” he said in an interview. “It’s premature to lob judgments like that or leap to dramatic conclusions that are drowning in hyperbole. That seems to be what’s going on right now, and it’s, of course, political in nature.”
‘Everything in my power to stop this proposal’
Republicans in Congress responded quickly and indignantly to the proposed rule, calling it a violation of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that governs how the BLM is supposed to manage public lands.
“The Biden Administration’s extreme unilateral action will kill multiple use,” Wyoming Republican John Barrasso, the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said in a statement the day BLM published the proposed rule. “This is a clear violation of the law. I will do everything in my power to stop this proposal.”
Republican Montana U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale accused Interior Secretary Deb Haaland of violating federal public lands law by proposing the rule during an April 19 U.S. House Natural Resources hearing.
“Public lands are multi-use,” Haaland said at the hearing. “It’s putting all of those uses on equal footing.”
“They’re not supposed to be on equal footing,” Rosendale responded. “And we need to abide by the law, not the rule.”
Rosendale raised more objections to the rule at a May 24 hearing.
Opponents say the law requires the agency to manage land for multiple uses, including extractive industries like oil and gas, mining and grazing. Conservation is not a “use,” as defined in the law, they say.
But the law also explicitly tasks the agency with managing the land for conservation purposes, advocates and legal experts say — though the BLM has rarely put conservation on the same level as extractive uses.
The law directs the agency to manage for several uses, including oil and gas, grazing, but also to protect lands’ historic, ecological, environmental and other values, Bailey Brennan, a public lands attorney with the advocacy group National Wildlife Federation, said in an interview.
“BLM has historically over the last 40 years managed public lands with an emphasis on the more extractive uses: grazing, mining, oil and gas development,” she said. “This is bringing conservation to the forefront on par with those other extractive uses, consistent with FLPMA … Congress was very deliberate about including language to the effect of conservation.”
Other opponents have said the rule does not add value to the BLM’s existing work. The agency already does conservation work, partnering with states to conduct “meaningful conservation projects,” Nevada Director of Agriculture Dr. J.J. Goicoechea said at the May 24 hearing.
“Do we need them on public land? Absolutely,” he said. “I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel. I think we have the tools we have now. The agency is overburdened. They can’t do the work they’re challenged with now and (if) we’re going to put another level on top of that, we’re going to see other things slide.”
The Biden administration does lack credibility with extractive industries — especially oil and gas producers — that use public lands and their mostly Republican political allies following the president’s day one executive order to pause oil and gas leasing on public lands, Gale said
The pause was good policy, Gale said, but it tanked Biden’s relationship with the industry.
“That set them off right out of the gate, and they’ve never come back from that moment,” he said. “Now, there’s the assumption that they’re trying other ways to accomplish what they wanted in the beginning. And so they’re looking for nefarious intent behind every blade of grass and every piece of sagebrush on BLM land.”
The rhetoric over the new proposal was reminiscent of an earlier Biden administration initiative of protecting 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.
“We’re seeing some of those similar arguments to 30×30,” Murray said.
Conservatives, especially in Western states, used that initiative as a symbol of government overreach, inspiring conspiracy theories about seizures of private property.
Such fears can happen when people don’t have enough information about a policy that could drastically affect their livelihoods. The agency has not been as explicit as it could be in the proposal that other uses will remain, Gale said. That has left a vacuum for those users to imagine worst-case scenarios, he said.
“In the absence of information and knowledge, sometimes people make dramatic conclusions on their own,” he said. “That’s kind of what’s happening here. And I’m hoping they’ll engage in the actual public meetings to clarify some of these things.”
Brennan, who has lived in Wyoming her whole life, said she understood why ranchers and others whose livelihoods depend on access to public lands would worry about a major change to how that access is managed.
She encouraged people with concerns to become involved in the conversation to shape the proposal.
The BLM is in the middle of a series of five public meetings to hear from those who would be impacted by the proposal. The most recent was May 25 in Denver and the next will be Tuesday in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Another live meeting will be held in Reno and the last meeting is scheduled for June 5 online.
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