The U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposes to change how it manages millions of acres across the nation — and in Wyoming — by reestablishing conservation as an equal priority in its “multiple use” doctrine, according to the agency.
The Conservation and Landscape Health draft rule recognizes that drought, wildfires and other mounting pressures require a shift in how BLM lands are managed, the agency said.
“As pressure on our public lands continues to grow, the proposed Public Lands Rule provides a path for the BLM to better focus on the health of the landscape, ensuring that our decisions leave our public lands as good or better off than we found them,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said.
While much of the 18.4 million acres of BLM lands in Wyoming support recreation and wildlife habitat, some areas are in need of remediation from industrial activities and the encroachment of invasive plant species such as cheatgrass and medusahead, Wyoming Outdoor Council Public Lands and Wildlife Advocate Meghan Riley said.
“BLM lands are facing new pressures right now,” Riley said during a public webinar this week hosted by WOC. “We have increasing drought, increasing wildfire and of course there’s been degradation in landscape health due to the effects of climate change and even development pressures. So there’s a lot of good reasons to put out a new rule right now.”
Others see the conservation rule as a threat to grazing and the mineral extraction industries — economic sectors they say are already facing headwinds from other federal initiatives.
“It doesn’t put conservation on par [with other uses],” Petroleum Association of Wyoming President Pete Obermueller said of the BLM’s draft rule. “It elevates it above everything else, to the exclusion of everything else.”
The BLM is seeking public comment on the draft rule until June 20. Public comments can be submitted via the Federal Register.
The Conservation and Landscape Health draft rule “promotes conservation and defines that term to include both protection and restoration activities,” according to the BLM. The rule also “clarifies that conservation is a use on par with other uses of the public lands” under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
Since its inception in the 1970s, FLPMA’s multiple-use and sustained-yield directives have been used to justify revenue-generating activities such as coal, oil and natural gas production, as well as renewable energy infrastructure. Its application regarding conservation values has not been as clearly defined, according to Riley.
”Some of these money generating uses have gotten a little bit more attention in management decisions and some of these conservation values may have fallen by the wayside,” Riley said. “So the intent of this rule that’s been put forward is to put conservation on equal footing with some of these other uses on BLM lands and bring better balance to management decisions.”
To achieve the goal, conservation values would be outlined in the BLM’s Resource Management Plans to assure their consideration in management decisions. That presents a timing problem, Riley said, because the bureaucratic process of updating RMPs can drag on for 10 years or longer. There are aspects of the draft rule, however, that the BLM could enact in a more timely manner.
The rule, as proposed, would expand criteria for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern designations, which allow for “special management attention … needed to protect important historical, cultural and scenic values, or fish and wildlife or other natural resources,” according to the BLM. That would give the agency a tool to expand conservation priorities before the rule is baked into individual, regional RMPs, according to Riley.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the draft conservation rule is the creation of “conservation leasing.” Each BLM office would be required to identify lands in need of restoration work. Energy developers could then pay to lease those areas for restoration work as a condition of approval to develop other BLM lands, according to the agency. Conservation leases would be limited to a 10-year term. Other entities, such as conservation groups, could also opt to pay for a conservation lease.
Opponents, such as the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, see conservation leasing as a way to lock up BLM lands that would otherwise be available for development. Obermueller said it’s an attempt to bypass congressional authority to withhold certain federal lands from the multiple-use doctrine.
“The BLM is trying to do an end-around Congress and grant to itself the ability to shut off other uses,” Obermueller said. “If conservation leasing doesn’t preclude [oil and gas activity], that’s something we’re absolutely willing to discuss. But that’s not how the rule is written.”
Riley said fears that conservation leasing could be used to exclude industrial activities are misplaced. By more intentionally identifying areas in need of restoration work under a conservation lease, she said, the program would actually encourage development on BLM lands more suitable for industrial activity.
“It would give industry the opportunity to do conservation work in one area to offset the impact of that development,” Riley said. “It’s not going to be the end of oil and gas leasing on BLM lands in Wyoming or elsewhere.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder, who previously worked in the coal, oil and gas industries, submitted a letter to the BLM opposing the draft conservation rule. The measure would threaten mineral development on adjacent state lands, and with it crucial revenues that Wyoming’s K-12 schools rely on, she said.
“Due to the nature of Wyoming’s intermixed state and federal land sections with 50% of the surface estate and 65% of the mineral estate owned by the federal government, I know from my career in the coal and oil and gas industry that any ‘non-use’ has a direct negative impact on leasing and development of adjacent state lands which will decrease the attractiveness and associated revenue generated to fund our public schools,” Degenfelder wrote. “The proposed rule at hand directly jeopardizes education funding in our state, both from state and federal lands.”
U.S. Republican Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis joined other GOP members in introducing a bill to block the BLM’s draft rule.
“Wyoming families depend on access to public lands for energy and critical mineral development, grazing, forest management, and recreation,” Barrasso said in a March 30 statement. “The Biden Administration’s extreme unilateral action will kill multiple-use. This is a clear violation of the law. I will do everything in my power to stop this proposal.”