Biden administration unveils conservation vision for public land management

Under proposed rule, BLM would realign emphasis toward ecosystem health, preserving landscapes for future generations

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) A view of the sandstone cliffs near the Buckhorn Wash area of the San Rafael Swell. The Biden administration has proposed sweeping new rules for how landscapes like these will be managed, with a new emphasis on preservation and ecological health.

The Biden administration on Thursday proposed a sweeping overhaul of the way public lands are managed, adjusting priorities to emphasize ecosystem health, recreational access and climate resilience to ensure these lands provide for “a sustained yield” far into the future.

The nation’s public lands are under growing pressure from long-term drought, increased wildfire risk, invasive species and declining landscape health, according to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

“It is our responsibility to use the best tools available to restore wildlife habitat, plan for smart development, and conserve the most important places for the benefit of the generations to come,” she said in a prepared statement. “As we welcome millions of visitors to hunt, fish and recreate on our public lands each year, now is the time to improve the health and management of special places.”

The overhaul comes in the form of a proposal, dubbed the Public Lands Rule, to be posted on the Federal Register, opening a 75-day public comment period. Officials said they welcome comments to craft a final rule.

The measure drew praise from some environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers, and rebukes from ranchers.

“With nearly a quarter of our carbon pollution coming from fossil fuel production on public lands, we have a mandate to fundamentally transform the way we manage our public lands in the face of climate change,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. “This decision is especially welcome as House Republicans continue to push their ‘Polluters Over People’ agenda by passing legislation today [Thursday] that gives away even more of our public lands to Big Oil for cheap.”

The Tribune has reached out to Utah’s Republican Gov. Spencer Cox and Rep. John Curtis for comment.

Touching on numerous aspects of public lands administration, the 88-page rule would direct the Bureau of Land Management to “protect intact landscapes, restore degraded habitat, and make wise management decisions based on science and data.” The move signals a policy shift that puts conservation “on an equal footing” with traditional land uses in accordance with the BLM’s multiple-use mandates.

“This essential effort will ensure the BLM has the tools we need to conserve intact landscapes, restore degradative habitat, and to balance responsible development based on science and data, and frankly, it can’t come soon enough,” a top Interior official told reporters on Thursday.

The BLM oversees 245 million acres, or about a tenth of the nation, including half the land in Utah. Since 1976, the BLM’s mission has been guided by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA. For decades, the agency has leaned heavily toward mineral extraction and livestock, oftentimes resulting in a heavy toll on West’s open landscape, critics contend.

“It’s a long overdue step to raise the floor for how BLM is going to manage the public lands across the West. Extractive uses have long held too much sway over how the public lands are managed,” said Steve Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “With this rule, the BLM is going to emphasize both multiple use and sustained yield, meaning a focus on conservation, as well as use of the public lands. We need that more than ever, and no place more so than in Utah, where we know Red Rock country is stressed more than we’ve ever seen it, by drought, by overuse, by a warmer climate.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, meanwhile, said the rule does little more than restate what’s already in the law, while passing on an opportunity to reverse the damage years of extractive industry and grazing has inflicted on the land. It falls short of the “major improvements” that are needed, according to the center’s public lands director Randi Spivak.

Advocates for the livestock industry blasted the proposal from the opposite direction, claiming it would “completely upend” the BLM’s multiple-use mandate.

“The covert manner in which the rule was developed and announced has left [grazing] permittees feeling like the rule is either a capitulation to the extremist environmental groups who want to eradicate grazing from the landscape, or a concerted effort to develop rules that preclude ranchers’ input,” said Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of the Public Lands Council. “Over the next 75 days, the BLM will have to answer some serious questions about their understanding of their multiple-use mandate and the value they place on their relationship with ranchers across the landscape.”

Interior officials said the rule changes would better align the BLM’s practices with the landmark FLMPA’s vision, which obligates the agency to also protect places with strong scenic, cultural and natural values.

“Without ensuring that native ecosystems are functioning and resilient, the agency risks failing on this commitment to the future,” the rule states.

The law already directs the BLM to “preserve lands in their natural condition where appropriate,” the official said. “It tells us we have to consider the long-term needs of future generations, it tells us we have to deliver a sustained yield of our natural resources. So to meet that congressional direction, we need to manage for healthy lands today through conservation, including the restoration of degraded lands and the protection of healthy ones.”

BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning emphasized the many benefits public lands provide all Americans, especially in the West, such as clean water, wildlife habitat, food, energy and lifetime memories.

“It’s our job to ensure the same for future generations,” she said. “As pressure on our public lands continues to grow, the proposed Public Lands Rule provides a path for the BLM to better focus on the health of the landscape, ensuring that our decisions leave our public lands as good or better off than we found them.”

The rule would also set up a system for issuing “conservation leases” to groups looking to restore particular places, as well as invigorating its process for establishing and managing Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACECs, such as Utah’s rock art-filled Nine Mile Canyon.

As with many other land management initiatives pursued by the Biden administration, Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, found much to be suspicious of in the latest announcement.

“What’s particularly concerning is the proposed rule introduces novel concepts beyond the authority granted in FLPMA. For example, ‘intact landscapes’ and conservation lease’ are not to be found in FLPMA,” she said. Sgamma fears an intact landscape standard implies “no impact,” which could derail oil and gas development in many places.