Utah sues feds over a rule intended to strengthen public lands against climate change

The state joins Wyoming in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management.

The state of Utah has asked a federal court to throw out a rule that bolsters conservation efforts on public lands.

In a lawsuit filed this week, Utah and Wyoming claim that the Bureau of Land Management’s Public Lands Rule “represents a sea change in how the agency will carry out its mission moving forward.” The two states argue that the BLM did not consider the environmental impacts of the rule, thereby violating the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Nearly half of all lands managed by the BLM in Utah are already covered by special designations that restrict uses that provide environmental protections. On top of special designations,” said Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, “BLM lands in Utah are also managed in accordance with a variety of federal laws that provide additional safeguards ensuring proper use and management.”

“The Public Lands Rule is a classic example of a solution looking for a problem,” Cox added.

The Public Lands Rule, according to the BLM, restores balance in the management of public lands by putting conservation on par with commercial uses — like oil and gas, grazing, mining and logging. The rule also creates “restoration and mitigation leases,” through which the agency can lease degraded public land for rehabilitation by states, nonprofits or developers.

Utah also claims that the rule causes two state agencies — the Division of Wildlife Resources and the Division of Agriculture and Food — to assume significant financial burdens, as the agencies plan to apply for all the restoration and mitigation leases available in Utah.

“This disappointing, but predictable reaction from the State of Utah only highlights how unserious its elected leaders are about addressing the challenges facing public lands in Utah,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the environmental nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “This lawsuit is out of touch with the majority of Utahns who support conservation and know climate change is a serious problem.”

The BLM announced the final rule in April. It went into effect on June 10.

‘NEPA failings’

Utah and Wyoming claim that the Public Lands Rule violates the BLM’s mandate, which is outlined in the Federal Land and Policy Management Act of 1976.

That law directs the BLM to manage public lands for the “multiple use” and sustained yield” of natural resources. The lawsuit argues that conservation is not considered a “use” under that law.

Supporters of the rule claim that it fills gaps in the BLM’s implementation of its mandate by putting conservation on par with commercial uses.

“Nearly a half-century ago, Congress said the BLM must consider land’s natural and scientific values, plus future generations’ needs, in its management decisions,” said Michael Carroll, BLM campaign director for The Wilderness Society, a conservation nonprofit. “The Public Lands Rule will help the agency finally live up to its ‘balanced multiple use’ mandate.”

“It is something to be celebrated, not sabotaged,” Carroll added.

A spokesperson for the BLM said that the agency did not have a statement on the lawsuit. The U.S. Department of the Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

State agencies will ‘incur significant costs’ due to rule, Utah argues

Utah argues in the lawsuit that the “restoration and mitigation leases” established in the Public Lands Rule harm state agencies and rural communities.

The rule enables the agency to lease degraded public land for restoration. For example, a nonprofit or conservation district could lease land to rehabilitate wildlife habitats under the BLM’s oversight. Or, a company already leasing public land for commercial use could apply for a mitigation lease to offset their impact.

The lawsuit claims that restoration and mitigation leases held by groups other than the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Division of Agriculture and Food pose “significant environmental risks to the State.”

One of those risks, the State of Utah claims, is that other parties who enter restoration and mitigation leases on Utah’s public land may not collaborate with the state.

The Division of Wildlife Resources, according to the lawsuit, will spend $5 million on lease payments, personnel and administrative costs associated with obtaining restoration and mitigation leases. The lawsuit argues that the division would not spend that money otherwise.

Craig Buttars, director of the Utah Division of Agriculture and Food, said in a declaration attached to the lawsuit that the rule will reduce the amount of public land available for grazing in the state, “exacerbating economic challenges in rural communities dependent on livestock grazing.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah.