Pete Obermueller, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, will testify Thursday before a U.S. House panel. The panel will consider proposed changes to the BLM's resource management planning processes for areas such as southwest Wyoming's Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area. (Photo by Bob Wick courtesy of BLM / Flickr Creative Commons)

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

A Bureau of Land Management bid to overhaul how it manages about 250 million acres of Western lands will take the spotlight Thursday at a hearing before a House Natural Resources panel.

The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will hear the views of state and county officials on how BLM’s proposal will affect their ability to influence agency decisions on land uses like grazing, energy development and recreation.

BLM in February unveiled a proposed rule to amend the regulations governing how agency resource management plans (RMPs) are developed, amended and revised (E&ENews PM, Feb. 11).

The agency revises its RMPs roughly every 15 years under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA). The plans — there are about 160 of them — cover millions of acres and can cost millions of dollars each to revise. They dictate which areas will be made available for oil and gas leasing, which will be managed in their primitive state and which will be left open to motorized recreation, among many other things.

BLM’s rule would establish several new opportunities for early public involvement during the planning process; would require the upfront assessment of baseline resource environmental, ecological, social and economic conditions; and would provide flexibility for the agency to plan beyond fixed administrative boundaries, among other significant changes.

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“The changes we are proposing will improve our ability to respond to today’s environmental, economic and social realities, including the need to have strong science, early and regular public input and a landscape-level approach to natural resource challenges and opportunities,” Janice Schneider, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said in a statement in February.

States and counties feel they have a lot at stake with the rule. Both the Western Governors’ Association, currently chaired by Gov. Matt Mead (R-Wyo.) and the National Association of Counties requested BLM extend the public comment period. BLM obliged, pushing the deadline back a month to May 25.

For states and counties, a key concern is the extent to which the rule will affirm a FLPMA requirement that BLM “coordinate the land use inventory, planning, and management activities” with states, local governments and tribes and “provide for meaningful public involvement” when crafting plans.

The plans “shall be consistent with state and local plans to the maximum extent [BLM] finds consistent with federal law and the purposes of this act,” the law reads.

Last month, a coalition of counties organized under the Texas-based group American Stewards of Liberty announced plans to fight the BLM rule, warning it “marginalizes” the voice of local governments.

“The changes are sweeping and would significantly reduce the role of state and local governments in public land use inventory and planning and management activities contrary to the statutory provisions of FLPMA,” the coalition said in a press release last month. It includes Kane County, Utah; Garfield County, Colo.; Chaves County, N.M.; Big Horn County, Wyo.; Custer County, Idaho; and Modoc County, Calif., as well as three conservation districts.

Critics worry that the rule’s “landscape” planning focus could diminish the voice of local governments and provide more sway to national environmental groups. Some counties worry whether they’ll have the time and resources to participate in more planning steps and whether BLM has the capacity to facilitate them.

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The panel Thursday will hear from Pete Obermueller, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.

Obermueller testified last October before the Federal Lands Action Group, a project led by Utah Republican Reps. Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop, the Natural Resources Committee chairman, that seeks legislation to transfer control of federal lands to Western states.

Obermueller urged counties to make full use of the cooperative role FLPMA grants them in the BLM planning process.

“The truth is that, while never giving counties veto authority or complete equal footing with the federal government, these tools are nonetheless a specific authority granted to counties in federal law to participate in the federal land use decision-making process,” he said in his written testimony. “I promise you the various advocacy groups would love to have that authority.”

Yet, he also warned that some federal lands officials see this statutory requirement as “merely a box to check, not a process to be taken seriously.”

The panel will also hear from Humboldt County, Nev., Commissioner Jim French, whose county has sued BLM to challenge its sage grouse land-use plan revisions, which were finalized in RMP amendments last September. Humboldt and several other Nevada counties and Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) argued the RMP amendment process was tainted by political meddling from environmentalists and a “disregard for public involvement.”

Ryan Flynn, the state’s secretary of environment and the natural resources trustee for New Mexico, will also testify.

The voice of local government will remain a focal point of BLM’s new planning process, BLM Director Neil Kornze said in February.

“Managing the public’s land is a tremendous honor for the employees of this agency, and our work depends on close cooperative relationships with partners and local communities,” he said. “Today’s announcement builds on the work we do every day to provide opportunities for the public to be a part of managing these incredible landscapes.”

Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, May 12, at 2 p.m. in 1324 Longworth.

Witnesses: Pete Obermueller, executive director, Wyoming County Commissioners Association; Ryan Flynn, secretary of environment and the natural resources trustee, New Mexico; Jim French, commissioner, Humboldt County, Nev.; and others TBA.

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— Originally published by Environment and Energy Daily. Contact E&E publishing for permission to republish.

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  1. Duncan and Earl, you are both wrong. Land is a resource. To be managed correctly for it’s health and well being and for revenue for the state. Each state, at the time they were admitted to the union, had an enabling act that basically put the land within each state’s borders into a trust. To do that they had to actually pass the ownership of that land to the federal government to hold it in trust. That is the part of the constitution you refer to Earl. The part that is missing is the legal phrase in each enabling act that states “and that until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States.” That is legally binding language that says the federal government must dispose of the land back to the state for the purpose of taxation and revenue. https://www.alec.org/model-policy/disposal-and-taxation-of-public-lands-act/

    1. Cathy, about a year ago the Congressional Research Service delivered a report to Congress on the authority of the federal government to own/manage land (see first link below). They concluded, as have many others, that the federal government DOES have the authority to own/manage federal land. During their research, do you suppose they failed to read the propaganda on the ALEC website? Even Wyoming’s Legislative Service Office has issued a legal opinion on the matter that sides with the federal government’s right to own land in the state (see second link).

      https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL34273.pdf

      https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/documents/2104089/task-force-on-transfer-of-public-lands.pdf

      1. Earl,
        The CRS had nothing to do with who is or should be the owner of land within the states, it was only a discussion of acquisition and disposal authorities.
        The Supremacy Clause states: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or shall be made, shall be the supreme Law of the land;…”
        The Constitution under Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 states: To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, (District of Columbia) and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dockyards, and other needful Buildings.
        So as stated by the staff attorneys of the LSO, by referencing the Supremacy Clause, the federal government has the right to own the 10 square miles around DC and whatever other land the states are willing to sell them for forts, arsenals, dockyards, etc. Because it is in the Constitution and therefore a part of the Supremacy Clause.

        1. The CRS report and the LSO opinion make it clear that the federal government has the authority to own/manage land. Those and other legal opinions have determined that states cannot legally force the sale/transfer of federal land. Admittedly, the federal government has the authority to dispose of federal land IF IT SO DESIRES. But this would be based on politics, not legalities.

          So the transfer/sale issue is a political one, not a legal one. ALEC and its followers are wrong to push this in a court of law. You may have a better chance in the court of public opinion. But a recent survey by Colorado College shows a strong majority of western citizens do not want federal lands transferred to the states. An even greater percentage is against privatizing those lands. Thankfully transfer/sale proponents don’t have much chance in the court of public opinion either. If I have anything to say about it, it will stay that way.

          1. So yesterday you wanted to make a legal argument by stating the CRS and LSO gave opinions that the federal government has the right to own lands within state borders. Now that I have pointed out to you that one, the CRS was not even discussing ownership and two, the LSO referenced the Supremacy Clause – the one stating the US Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the Constitution states the only land the federal government is allowed to own is the ten square miles that makes up the District of Columbia or land granted to them by the states for military support facilities, you want to say it is not a legal but political argument. And to back that up you reference an opinion survey conducted by Colorado College. I would be willing to bet the survey respondents are just as woefully misinformed about the legality of the matter as you are. Which is why the matter is and has to be a legal one in which we will prevail. And if you think that is wrong I would refer you to Missouri Democrat US Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Who in 1830 successfully fought to have the lands that at that time were considered “the West” transferred from federal ownership to state ownership.

        2. Cathy…In response to your comment: “So yesterday you wanted to make a legal argument by stating the CRS and LSO gave opinions that the federal government has the right to own lands within state borders. Now that I have pointed out to you that one, the CRS was not even discussing ownership and two, the LSO referenced the Supremacy Clause – the one stating the US Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the Constitution states the only land the federal government is allowed to own is the ten square miles that makes up the District of Columbia or land granted to them by the states for military support facilities, you want to say it is not a legal but political argument.” Yes, your only chance is in the court of public opinon, because the legal question has been resolved. I provided two links to top notch legal opinions on the matter. Here is another one: http://m.reviewjournal.com/opinion/public-lands-argument-not-rooted-fact

  2. So what do we get with county control of public lands? Water resources would be totally allocated to a marginal agriculture economy. Timber resources taken at unsustainable harvest levels and poor practices on the lands just as WY State Forestry does on State Trust Land. Reclamation promises and bonds on minerals and energy projects would be as vaporous and potentially unfunded as our declining coal industry. Our counties now have nearly 60% of the roads and highways at sub-standard condition…..where are they going to pick up that tab? And the biggest lie is increased access for the public to recreate. Lincoln County WY just erred with intent to limit general public access to Federal lands in collusion with a grazing district. County representatives to the Bighorn Forest are pushing for increases in the allotted AUM”s on a Forest that can support half the number in the Forest Plan regardless of climate or range science. No way to County rule.

  3. Not all public land in the US has the same history. Much of the “public land” was acquired from the starving homesteaders who proved up on the public domain (the sovereign’s land) in order for the homesteaders to have $2.00 to leave their homestead paradise. The Bankhead -Jones Act authorized the repurchase from the private owners. Much of those lands were put into grazing districts for the US Government to get some return on the funds expended to help the homesteaders out of a financial predicament. The other large amount of land was “Public Domain”, land which for obvious reasons would not support agriculture as seen through Eastern eyes. Most of the Western states do not, in my opinion, have the resources to manage the large amount of public lands that lie within their borders. Private ownership is not necessarily a panacea for problems with public land.

  4. I keep wondering why the federal government still owns land more than five times the size of Kansas. When admitted as states, most of this land was supposed to have been privatized and managed by individuals or at worst, the state in which it’s located. I’d bet my last nickel that individually owned land would be better managed, with fair rental rates along with property and income taxes coming back to the taxpayers in the form of infrastructure and social services. Discussion of mining and oil production won’t fit in this small space but I’m sure private individuals would make land much more productive than the federal government. It seems timely for the feds to shed the responsibility for all this land.

    1. Gene, the point isn’t necessarily for the land to be productive. It’s to be managed for all Americans and protected for future generations, not exploited for short-term gains by individual people or corporations.

    2. Gene, you are wrong. Most federal land WAS NOT supposed to have been privatized when western states were admitted. Article 21, Section 26 of the Wyoming Constitution states: “The people of this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof…” Most western states have almost exactly the same wording in their constitutions. As to whether private owner’s could manage the land better is a moot point to recreationists if they can’t get access to it. You have been listening to Ted Cruz too much!