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.

Volunteer Josh McNary pulls a fence post from an abandoned corral in the BLM’s Raymond Mountain Wilderness Study area during a Public Lands day event in 2014. (Courtesy/Julia Stuble)

“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.”

Development pressures include the BLM’s own initiatives to promote commercial-scale wind and solar energy projects on federal property in the state.

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.

Draft rule

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.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees the South Pass Area of Critical Environmental Concern established to protect historic and natural resources. (BLM/Bob Wick/Flickr Creative Commons)

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.

“It doesn’t put conservation on par [with other uses]. It elevates it above everything else, to the exclusion of everything else.”

Pete Obermueller, Petroleum Association of Wyoming

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.

Conservation leasing

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.”

Students plant trees along Bitter Creek on Bureau of Land Management land. (BLM photo)

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.”

Political opposition

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.”

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Where does everyone believe all these critical minerals for this Green Energy agenda will come from? Fall out of the air? Coal fired power plant has life span of 40-60 years. Wind Turbine MAYBE 15. Solar panel. 10-12 years MAX. What fools to believe in green. But people still believe Unicorns exist as well

  2. More government overreach,this is why we need trump or someone with the same policies to give the government power back to the people,

  3. CURRENT SITUATION IS A DOUBLE WHAMMY: At present, the oil and gas industry is running at about 80% of full out; and, we have wind and solar rapidly coming on line at the same time. Therefore, the effect on the environment is greatly elevated from previous levels – concerning, since oil and gas will see a gradual decline over 10-40 year time frame – not a sudden reduction in output. Basically, we have added two new industries to the Wyoming environment and the jury is still out on the long term effect of wind and solar on the actual production sites. The situation begs for additional conservation and increased caution whence approving developments on Federal land.

    EXAMPLE: The BLM and Biden administration recently approved a new national monument on the very most southern tip of Nevada close to the Colorado River. Some of the newly protected land had large solar projects in the 2,000 acre size range proposed on the Federal land – and, without protection, critical desert habitat would have been compromised. Why? The large solar projects were close to Las Vegas and Los Angeles and were anticipated to help replace dwindling hydro electric generated electricity and diminished coal, oil and gas energy sources. Timely intervention saved the best saguaro cactus habitat in Nevada.

    Bottom line is that it isn’t just oil, gas and coal which threaten the environment it also includes wind and solar. And, people are flooding into the country at an alarming rate which can mean only one thing – a hammered environment.

  4. The Biden Administration and extreme environmental groups should stop pushing their Green Energy agenda over Multiple-use on BLM public lands. Public access and different uses on public land is important for all groups of people. Wind farms in Southern Wyoming are having as more impact on the high Plains desert BLM wilderness land than the petroleum industry. More than a dozen more than a dozen more wind farms and a 742 mile transmission line are being rushed through for approval for political reasons by BLM with very little analysis or the long term environmental affects. Stop this political land grab of public lands.

  5. This fall possibly heading to Wyoming area around the Tensleep area. Was raised in Basin Wyoming in my childhood and now retired and can remember the best of times there summer camping and hunting with Aunts, Uncles and cousins as well as my parents and sisters. I realize dispersion camping has changed rules alot. Will this have an effect on that type of recreation?

  6. The BLM shouldn’t determine what’s done with the peoples land. It’s public land and not for sale. Most of us that spend time outdoors leave it better than we found it. I personally haul trash and other stuff out of the mountains left behind by those who are careless. Including the forest service who’s not supposed to leave trash. I even followed a BLM vehicle out of land and picked up the litter thrown out by the passenger. We the people use these lands not only for fun, hunting, fishing, exploring, and escape from the nasty world we live in now. It’s a place to be closest to God for me and you can’t take it away. We the people need this escape please listen. The government has taken too much from us already and it is time to stop.

  7. So, when is Degenfelder going to speak out about this, if she is so concerned about school funding? My God, and she was the “sensible” one of 2 candidates! “The State of Wyoming is being sued for potentially underfunding the education system, which would violate the state’s constitution. The Wyoming Education Association (WEA) filed a suit against the state on Aug. 18.” The case goes before the court starting later this month.

  8. Education of our kids is important, and the funds generated by industry are integral to quality education, but of what use is education if there are no remaining wild places preserved for them; no unpolluted water in which to fish, paddle, and swim; no pristine air and clear nighttime skies. Unfettered exploitation of our environment is short sighted and the acquisition of more money and more development isn’t sustainable in this closed system. This proposal, a shift in priorities, sounds like a compromise that will benefit local residents without unduly hurting industry. Revenue generated by “conservation leases” might just be a brilliant tactic to give nature a chance to recover in select areas, while allowing those who profit from the use of public lands to continue to create jobs and revenue to benefit the public.

  9. I’m a mining engineer and I generally support economic activity on the Federal lands in Wyoming. However there have been some very disturbing industrial projects of late which really have had a negative effect on the environment of the federal lands and underlying mineral estate. Most of these are due to the extremely large size of the industrial developments. They include:
    1.) Coal bed methane industrial development attempted to drill up to 90,000 wells that would have covered almost the entire Powder river Basin and ultimately resulted in about 27,000 wells before it was found found to be unsustainable and not economically well founder. A huge mistake environmentally.
    2.) A solar energy project near Pinedale lying on both sides of the highway which seriously impacted wildlife migration. The BLM should never have a proved that location – DAH’
    3.) The sheer size of the recently approved oil and gas EIS mostly northwest of Douglas which approved development on over 1,000,000 acres. Not a bad location because the pipelines are close and the oil/gas support companies well established in Douglas/Gillette/Casper but the size of the approved projects seemed awfully large.
    4.) The sheer size of the Moneta Divide oil/gas development – which expanded an existing field. Again, it covered about 300,000 acres and authorized up to 5,000 wells. Not a bad location but the size of the proposed project and its potential impact on Boysen has been very concerning.
    5.) The sheer size of the Jonah Gas development projects in the Green River Basin. Made possible in part by offsite mitigation of the impact on sage grouse habitat which was of dubious benefit. The impacted grouse habitat was by far the best in the whole entire western US. Did we have to develop it as fast as possible? Couldn’t it have been developed more slowly in stages over a 30 – 70 year time frame instead of go, go, go.
    6.) Industrial development seems to continuously encroached on the Red Desert resulting in formerly isolated tracts of Federal land becoming accessible by more and more vehicular traffic. Whats wrong with horseback access, backpacking and low impact mountain bikes?

    The list goes on and on. It brings to mind a section in NEPA called ” cumulative impact analysis” which requires the Federal agencies to look at the big picture. Aren’t we at a point in Wyoming where the cumulative impact on the environment on the various Federal lands is too excessive? Ever heard of enough is enough?

  10. Finally, BLM is proposing to do what they are supposed to do, take care of the land. Conservation leases are a giant step in that direction. And our Wyoming education funding system should not be banking on nonrenewable energy sources,. It’s been a tenuous cycle of feast and famine.

    1. Well said. BLM has traditionally been under total control of the extractive industry. Giving up a portion of this control results in the panicky screams I hear in this conversation. Barrasso & Lummis are also under total control of the extractive industry which also shows in their panic to reverse these BLM decisions.

  11. All I can say about this proposal is that it’s about time. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) was passed in 1976, giving clear direction that BLM lands should be managed for all uses, not just a few. It incorporates the Multiple Use – Sustained Yield Act (1960) which was written for the US Forest Service, including this section:

    “Multiple use means the management of all the various renewable surface resources … so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the needs of the American people … that some land will be used for less than all of the resources; and harmonious and coordinated management of the various resources, each with the other, without impairment of the productivity of the land, with consideration being given to the relative values of the various resources, and not necessarily the combination of uses that will give the greatest dollar return or the greatest unit output.”

    This does not suggest that conservation will take precedence over all other uses, but that it will be treated as a legitimate use, with the others, of our public land.

  12. How so very sad and greedy that the extractive industries feel they can destroy the environment to line their pockets. They say it is their way of life. Oh, give me a break. I support the new conservation rules.