Kirk Nichols: Utahns can — and must — help the federal government improve public land management

We deserve a more sustainable, balanced approach to land management.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah’s Tabby Mountain provides scenic big game habitat in the western Uinta Basin, on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.

We are not finished yet. Perhaps once a generation, the public is asked, en masse, to help re-balance one of our federal land management agencies. Now is that moment. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is accepting public comments on its proposed “Public Lands Rule” through June 20.

The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service are multiple-use land managers. That is distinctly different from the perhaps more familiar National Park Service whose mandate to preserve and enjoy is defined in their Organic Act of 1916. The Forest Service’s Organic Act dates to 1897 stating, “improve and protect the condition of the forest area to … secure favorable conditions of water flows… furnish a continuous supply of timber…” or multiple-use.

Uniquely, the BLM was originally the U.S. Grazing Service combined with the General Land Office and all their connected historical laws mashed together, along with mining and extraction laws to create an agency with too many Cerberus-like heads. Congress, in 1976, produced the wordy, Federal Lands Planning and Management Act (FLPMA). Within that, the BLM was consolidated into one multiple-use and sustained-yield agency.

Congress, in the Multiple-Use-Sustained-Yield Act of 1960, allows that not all possible uses are to take place all in the same place. Instead, agencies must plan regionally. Wilderness and recreation are legally required components of multiple-use management. Many are of the opinion that the BLM has not grown beyond its pre-1976 FLPMA orientation toward livestock and minerals (including oil and gas). Oil, gas, and mineral extraction exclude wilderness and vice versa. Yet, extraction greatly outsizes wilderness areas and the protection of other areas of critical environmental concern.

Initially, when FLPMA was new, the BLM designated many Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). These are “…areas where uncontrolled use or development could result in irreversible damage to: important historic, cultural, or aesthetic values, or natural systems or processes, or life or safety as a result of natural hazards,” The enthusiasm was obvious. Unfortunately, since it was even easier to remove that protected status, we gradually lost most of those ACEC protections to outside special interests. We need that old enthusiasm of the BLM employees to return. The Public Lands Rule will help.

In general, the Public Lands Rule reminds, no, tells the local BLM officials to inventory and really get to know the ecosystems within which they work and administer the laws. Decisions must not be based just on extraction, but instead based on ecosystem management. Where there are minerals for potential extraction, balance that against losses to recreation, wildlife, water quality, and not just on monetary profits. The land managers must protect old growth pinion and juniper systems and balance cultural and historical protection while working with local livestock and timber families. The local BLM must partner more with Native American groups, accommodating their heritage and their views of the future. Isolated, single resource management is behind us.

Get online, look up: BLM, Public Lands Rule, Comments. This is your moment in history to write the BLM. Read the rule, then describe and request a more sustainable balance.

(Kirk Nichols) In a guest commentary for The Salt Lake Tribune, University of Utah professor Kirk Nichols writes that “Utahns can — and must — help the federal government improve public land management.”

Kirk Nichols’ family has been in Utah as legislators, doctors, nurses, ranchers, and in the mining industry for more than 175 years. Kirk was formerly a seasonal Forest Service ecologist and is currently a professor of Outdoor Recreation Studies at the University of Utah.