Utah Republicans battle Biden admin’s new Public Lands Rule, pass Rep. Curtis’ bill in U.S. House

Utah’s all-Republican congressional delegation is trying to block a rule that would put conservation on equal footing with commercial uses on public lands.

Conservatives in Washington are working to nip the Biden administration’s latest conservation effort in the bud, and Utah’s elected officials are leading the charge.

Last week, Rep. John Curtis’ Western Economic Security Today (WEST) Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives, co-sponsored by Reps. Celeste Maloy, Blake Moore and Burgess Owens. Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romey co-sponsored a similar bill in the Senate. Both pieces of legislation take aim at a rule finalized by the Bureau of Land Management in April, which would affect the 23 million acres of public land in Utah.

The BLM manages public land for a variety of commercial uses, like grazing, mining, oil, gas, logging, grazing and recreation. The Public Lands Rule put conservation on equal footing with those activities, the agency said, in an attempt to restore balance on the 245 million acres of American land that it manages. The rule also establishes “restoration and mitigation leases,” through which the BLM can lease degraded public land to an environmental nonprofit or conservation district for rehabilitation.

The Utah Republicans have opposed the Public Lands Rule since the BLM proposed it last year, arguing that the rule will kneecap local economies, small businesses and lucrative industries by locking up land for restoration rather than profit.

“It is critical that Utah’s land remains under the stewardship of those who have tended it for generations,” Curtis said in a statement. “The rule the BLM recently finalized undermines the very people who rely on our federal lands for ranching, grazing, recreation, and beyond. Utahns know the true value of these lands and they should remain open to everyone. Instead, this rule favors wealthy individuals and environmental groups.”

If made law, the WEST Act would direct the BLM to permanently withdraw the Public Lands Rule and prevent the agency from finalizing a similar rule in the future.

In the eyes of Utah conservatives, the BLM’s Public Lands Rule is the Biden administration’s latest attempt to limit access and restrict industry on public lands. Curtis pointed to the president’s national monument designations, the BLM’s plans for managing public land and a recent proposal to create companies that invest in restoring land as previous examples of federal overreach.

Environmentalists say that this opposition to conservation serves as a handout to industries that profit from natural resource extraction.

“The WEST Act is nothing more than election-year grandstanding and has no chance of becoming law,” said Travis Hammill, the Washington director for the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Representative Curtis’s decision to sponsor the WEST Act is at odds with the majority of Utahns who support conservation and know climate change is a serious problem.”

Curtis, the founder and former chair of the Conservative Climate Caucus, introduced the WEST Act in May 2023, shortly after the BLM proposed the rule. At the same time, Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso introduced legislation to block the proposed rule in the Senate.

“This ill-advised rule will disrupt vital initiatives such as mineral extraction and recreation and severely impact small family businesses that depend on access to BLM land,” Lee said of the finalized rule last month.

Barrasso’s legislation, similar to Curtis’ WEST Act, would require the BLM to rescind the recent rule. There have been no actions on the bill since it was introduced in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resouces in May 2023, of which Barrasso is the ranking member. Lee is also on the committee.

Curtis’ WEST Act now heads to that committee, which is chaired by Democratic Sen. John Manchin from West Virginia. During a recent committee hearing regarding the U.S. Department of the Interior’s budget, Manchin expressed frustration with the department’s priorities.

“Getting this administration to celebrate the abundant resources our country has been blessed — with whether that be oil, gas, coal or minerals that we can produce cleaner or safer than anywhere else in the world, and that we and our friends around the world rely on — should be an easy lift,” Manchin said. “But the radical climate advisers in the White House have put election-year politics ahead of a thoughtful and achievable long-term strategy for the country.”

Following the release of the final Public Lands Rule in April, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said that the state plans to challenge the rule in federal court.