Tribune Editorial: The BLM Public Lands Rule is a common-sense solution

Federal land should obviously be managed in a way that recognizes, protects, even expands, that use.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) FILE - Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument is shown on May 8, 2017, in Utah.

The only thing wrong with a proposed rule that would have the U.S. Bureau of Land Management officially consider conservation as one of the “multiple uses” intended for the huge swaths of public land it oversees is that it wasn’t written 47 years ago.

That’s why it is wrong for just about everyone who is everyone in Utah politics to oppose the new rule the BLM wishes to impose upon itself as it enforces the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, known to friend and foe alike as FLPMA.

The plain language of the proposal (if 22 pages of the Federal Register can be described as “plain language”) is that any reasonable reading of FLPMA would include conservation concerns and efforts on an equal footing with the other potential uses of any bit of federal land.

Outdoor recreation and tourism are clearly the economic backbone of Utah outside the Wasatch Front. They employ more people and generate more income than ranching, drilling and mining put together. Federal land should obviously be managed in a way that, whenever logical, recognizes, protects, even expands, that use.

But those who benefit from other major uses — specifically grazing livestock, mining or drilling for oil and gas and cutting timber — are waving the bloody shirt of federal overreach. They are behaving as if giving conservation interests a seat at the table automatically means the preservation of land will, now and forever, trump every other past, present or future use.

Even though that’s not what the draft rule says.

Republican politicians from throughout the American West are up in arms as well. Among them is Utah Rep. John Curtis, who is leading out on a bill that would block the proposed conservation rule, and any similar move the BLM might make in the future.

At a hearing for the bill the other day, Curtis invoked in one of the Western Republican’s favorite scare tactics, the idea that Western lands should be managed the way Western politicians and extractive industries want them managed, the interests of the American people — and the land itself — be damned.

The 247 million acres under the protection of the BLM across the nation — and the 23 million acres it controls in Utah — are the legacy property of the American people. They belong to every American who lives and works in Utah. And in Colorado. And in New Jersey. And in Florida. And in Germany. And in Japan. And generations yet unborn.

Yes, the decisions on the use of that land matter to Westerners. All those acres are at our front door and affect our lives and livelihoods. Our job prospects and tax base. Our air and water quality. Our ability to continue to live in a state that attracted many of us for its natural beauty and its potential for recreation and contemplation.

Curtis, the rest of the Utah congressional delegation, our governor, Legislature and local elected officials all have a right and a responsibility to stand up for our interests and needs whenever those decisions are made.

But if they want to have any real influence over the decision-making process, they must demonstrate they are reasonable and informed representatives, not just partisan fear mongers. That they will use their positions to craft reasonable laws and rules, not just pitch a fit whenever someone suggests the land held in trust for the American people won’t always have as its highest and best use another drilling rig or grazing allotment.

Curtis’ bill fails on that important score. It flies in the face of his oft-stated, and wholly reasonable, position that Western politicians can work across the aisle and not make everything into a partisan feud.

Any serious view of public lands across the West would see that conservation is often — not always, but often — the most logical and far-sighted use of any bit of land. That conservation and economic development are not always, or even usually, at odds with one another. And that there is more than one kind of conservation.

One important tool in the kit for such efforts is something called a conservation lease. That’s a legal gizmo, similar to a grazing allotment or a drilling lease, that would allow conservation groups, Native American nations and others to pay the feds money for the right to designate a specific acreage, for a specific number of years, for efforts to protect, or reclaim, the land.

The main difference between a conservation lease and a drilling lease, for example, would be that the leaseholders would leave the land in a condition that was much better than they found it, to the benefit of the American taxpayer, not permanently scarred by abandoned mines, poorly capped drill sites and denuded landscapes.

Such leases would not — despite the wailing of the extractive industry and Western political leaders — become de facto wilderness or otherwise shut off public access. And the rule specifically states that such conservation efforts could not push aside any existing grazing or drilling right.

The bureaucrats that manage all that Utah land could do a better job of considering the rights and needs of all of us out here. If you’d like to comment on the proposed rule, you can do so until July 5 by visiting regulations/gov and searching for it.

Congress should also be ponying up a lot more money to compensate the state and local governments for the tax revenue they don’t get out of federal lands.

The best way for that to happen is for our elected leaders to show themselves to be the kind of reasonable and informed representatives that Rep. Curtis describes himself as. Not to automatically oppose every reasonable effort to keep those lands healthy and, in a low-impact sort of way, productive for future generations.