A new rule aims to fortify public lands against climate change. Here’s why Utah wants to fight it.

The Bureau of Land Management announced the final rule on Thursday.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A rainbow appears in Valley of the Gods, a Bureau of Land Management-designated Area of Critical Environmental Concern, in 2020. A new rule from the BLM prioritizes the creation of ACECs for building resilience to climate change.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees nearly 23 million acres of Utah’s land for grazing, oil and gas, mining and logging. Thursday, the agency published a rule that puts conservation on par with those commercial uses in an endeavor to build resilience to climate change.

The BLM says that the new Public Lands Rule restores balance on public lands across the country by protecting land health, establishing “restoration and mitigation leases” and clarifying protections for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. The final rule affects one-tenth of American land.

Conservation groups laud the rule, arguing that it fills gaps in the current implementation of the agency’s mandate, which is outlined in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. “A rule like this should’ve been on the books 45 years ago,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director for the nonprofit Center for Western Priorities.

But industry representatives and Utah politicians say that the change poses a threat to their lifestyles and livelihoods.

“Utah has a long track record of successful conservation and restoration of its public lands in tandem with local BLM offices,” said Utah Gov. Spencer Cox in a statement. “The added layers of red tape and federal bureaucracy embedded in the BLM’s Public Lands Rule create new roadblocks to conservation work. The health of Utah’s lands and wildlife will suffer as a result.”

The governor said that Utah plans to challenge the new rule in federal court as soon as possible.

‘Restoration and mitigation leases’

Under this new rule, the agency will be able to lease degraded public land for restoration.

For example, the BLM could lease an area to an environmental nonprofit or conservation district to rehabilitate a wildlife habitat. A company leasing public lands for development could also offset their impacts through one of these leases; an oil and gas company could apply for a mitigation lease to protect an area for recreation for the duration of their development project.

These “restoration and mitigation leases” will not conflict with authorized uses already established on public lands, according to the BLM.

Utah’s elected officials, ranchers, miners and some recreators fear that this type of leasing will push them off of BLM land.

“This new rule poses a real threat to the [grazing] lifestyle and industry as a whole,” said Troy Henrie, the Utah Farm Bureau’s southern regional manager. “In Utah, without public lands, we’re dead.”

Sen. Mike Lee agreed: “Utahns have proven themselves exemplary stewards of these lands, far more capable of managing them than unelected bureaucrats in Washington. This misguided rule will hamper critical projects such as mineral extraction and strike a harsh blow to small family-run businesses dependent on BLM land access.”

Rep. John Curtis agreed that the Public Lands Rule will threaten Utahns’ way of life, adding that restoration and mitigation leases will allow private companies to capitalize on public land.

“It favors wealthy individuals and environmental groups, allowing them to lock up land that belongs to all Utahns,” Curtis said in a statement.

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 directs the BLM to “take any action necessary to prevent unnecessary or undue degradation” of public lands.

That law also requires the agency to manage public lands “in a manner that will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values.”

The agency’s ability to manage public land for multiple uses, extractive and otherwise, depends on overall health of ecosystems, according to the Public Lands Rule.

Naysayers argue that the BLM has already baked conservation standards into regulations for extractive industries.

“I don’t agree that conservation is not prioritized on public land,” said Ben Burr, executive director of the nonprofit BlueRibbon Coalition, an off-roading and recreation advocacy group. “It’s heavily prioritized. There isn’t an imbalance there that needs to be balanced with this new rule.”

Areas of Critical Environmental Concern

Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, known as ACECs, are public lands that the BLM has designated as requiring extra protections and special management. ACECs are unique; some may protect watersheds, while others may contain cultural resources.

For example, in Utah, the BLM has designated the Valley of the Gods within Bears Ears National Monument as an ACEC.

“With so much of Utah’s redrock country facing dire consequences because of climate change, the Rule will help keep conservation front of mind as BLM goes about its work,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, in a statement.

The Public Lands Rule directs the BLM to prioritize and identify more ACECs, emphasizing that these areas protect intact landscapes that bolster ecosystem resilience.

“The fact that such significant areas across the western US are likely to qualify as ‘intact landscapes’ likely resulting in restrictions disallowing multiple use only serves to punish responsible developers who have invested in conservation, multiple-use, and the betterment of these lands,” said Rikki Hrenko-Browning, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, “including the oil and gas community.”

The final rule claims that these measures do not prioritize conservation over the other uses of public lands.

The final version of the BLM’s Public Lands Rule will soon be published in the Federal Register. The rule will go into effect 30 days after publication, though opposed states and organizations have indicated that they will challenge it in court.