Is conservation useful? No one would argue that it isn’t.
But is conservation a “use”?
That question is getting plenty of argument after the Biden Administration proposed the “Public Lands Rule,” which western Republicans say has the potential to destroy the grazing, mining and recreation that happens on Bureau of Land Management lands across the West.
“The BLM’s proposed rule would undermine the livelihoods of Utah’s farmers, ranchers, recreation businesses, and more,” Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said in a statement. “In a state that has so much natural beauty to share, this rule attempts to lock up those precious lands that should be open and accessible to the public.”
Curtis and 11 other Western Republicans in Congress have introduced a resolution calling for the BLM to withdraw the proposed rule, which they say usurps congressional authority. All of Utah’s congressional delegation has come out against the rule.
The Biden Administration and western Democrats say the proposal fits within existing law, which they say puts conservation on equal footing with grazing, mining and other activities on federal lands.
“Congress passed the Federal Land Policy Management Act in 1976, and while Congress mandated the lands be managed for multiple uses, conservation has long been pushed aside,” Stephanie Garcia Richard, New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands, told a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing this week on the rule.
The proposal includes several components, but one of the most contentious is the idea of the government offering “conservation leases” of federal lands. Under the proposal, conservation groups could “lease” BLM land that needs restoration, and they could invest in that restoration with the confidence of knowing it will stay protected because of the lease. BLM says the leases must “be consistent with, and not override, valid existing rights,” meaning lands under conservation leases could still accommodate other uses.
Republicans aren’t buying it. They say the leases go beyond Congress’ intent with the 1976 law, and they say BLM’s 75-day public review process is inadequate for such a significant change.
“This new leasing regime opens the door for a new, noncompetitive process designed to lock away parcels of land, with no limits to size, for a period of 10 or more years,” Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney wrote in a letter to BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning. “It’s clear that anti-grazing and anti-development organizations would abuse this tool to attempt to halt ranching and block access to our nation’s abundant energy reserves located on public lands.”
Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Association, said that while his organization could potentially enter into a conservation lease, it has no plans to do so at this time. “I could imagine as part of a renewables and/or renewables transmission project that an operator would seek to acquire a conservation lease to offset the impact from its project,” Bloch said. “A tribal nation could also seek to acquire a conservation lease to protect an important area for gathering traditional herbs or an area that has particular importance.”
There is one traditional western constituency that could see benefits from the rule: hunters and fishers. Large hunting and fishing groups could be logical holders of conservation leases to preserve wildlife habitat.
“The surest way to restore the health of big game species is to improve their habitat,” wrote Russell Kuhlman, executive director of the Nevada Wildlife Federation, in an op-ed in the Nevada Independent. “The agency’s proposed rule puts an emphasis on land and watershed restoration so that wildlife biodiversity and connectivity is improved across landscapes. It does so in ways that won’t threaten other uses, such as mining or grazing. Instead, it will focus on identifying lands that can be feasibly restored back to health.”
“Trout Unlimited has long partnered with the BLM on conservation initiatives and on-the-ground projects to restore trout and salmon habitat and improve watershed health, and we appreciate this new effort to make America’s shared lands and waters more resilient,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, in a statement. ”Public lands face no shortage of challenges — a historic drought, more intense wildfires, and invasive species, as well as new energy development and increased mining. As BLM works to address competing interests, we are pleased to see the agency recognize conservation as one of the most important uses of our public lands.”
“We are reviewing the proposed rule and will be offering comments soon,” said Ryan Bronson, director of government affairs for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “This proposed rule has been developed without input from us or any other hunting conservation organizations that we work with so we are trying to understand what the proposal would do. We will have more detailed comments in the near future.”
The Blue Ribbon Coalition, which is more focused on off-road vehicle access than wildlife habitat, is firmly opposed. “This rule will be a way for conservation organizations to create de facto wilderness, where they have failed to get Congress to make such restrictive designations. The $800 billion outdoor recreation industry thrives because of BLM’s careful efforts to balance conservation with other uses,” said coalition Executive Director Ben Burr in a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed.
Members of the Utah Legislature also sent a letter addressed “Dear Director of the Bureau of Land Management” without naming Stone-Manning. “The BLM’s proposed rule flies in the face of decades of public land law that has allowed for multiple uses on public lands and years of effective public land management by the state of Utah,” stated the letter, signed by 82 of the 104 Utah Legislators, all Republicans.
The proposed rules also aim to elevate protections around “areas of critical environmental concern,” a term defined in the 1976 law to include areas where special management attention is needed to protect historical, cultural, and scenic values, or wildlife or other natural resources. Utah already has several such areas, including the Central Pacific Railroad Grade in Box Elder County, Nine Mile Canyon in Carbon County and the Upper Beaver Dam Wash in Washington County. It’s unclear whether the rule would change management of those areas.