Laura Lundquist

After Republicans and extractive industry spokesmen bashed a Biden administration rule conserving public land in a Congressional hearing, conservation groups responded, saying the majority of the testimony was misinformation.

On Wednesday afternoon, conservationists and government accountability advocates pushed back on attacks of a proposed Bureau of Land Management rule that would clarify the BLM’s authority and duty to restore and conserve public lands as mandated under an existing law.

In early April, the BLM published a proposed rule entitled “Conservation and Landscape

Health,” which seeks to re-establish conservation as one of multiple uses that BLM managers are supposed to consider and allows lands to be leased for conservation and restoration.

“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 in a March 30 statement. “We look forward to feedback from the public on how this proposal will help us best uphold the BLM’s important mission.”

Since then, those involved in natural resource extraction and livestock grazing have mounted attacks on the proposed rule, making claims that conservationists say are inaccurate at best and lies at the worst.

The rancor came to a head on Wednesday morning during a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing on the rule dominated by conservation opponents. Anticipating similar arguments during a public meeting in Denver on Thursday, conservationists and government watchdogs held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to present the other side.

Subcommittee Chairman Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said in a statement that the rule sidestepped Congressional authority and would restrict multiple uses such as grazing, mineral development, energy production and recreation, and “represents the latest rush to lock the gates on federal lands by the Biden administration.”

Michael Carroll, Wilderness Society BLM campaign director, said that under the rule, conservation wouldn’t push other uses out. The rule just sets goals for the BLM to manage for both intact landscapes and extraction. The BLM will use two tools, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern and conservation leases, to help conserve and restore lands.

“They’re going to hit these goals and manage for these goals in addition to managing for other extractive uses, not to trump those uses,” Carroll said. “There’s been a lot of talk about (the rule) being confusing and not making sense, but we think it’s pretty straightforward. It clarifies conservation as a key use of BLM lands as set forth by the law.”

That law is the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which Congress passed in 1976 to guide federal land management and BLM actions in particular. FLPMA defines "multiple use" as, among other things, “a combination of balanced and diverse resource uses that takes into account the long-term needs of future generations for renewable and nonrenewable resources, including, but not limited to, recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural scenic, scientific and historical values.”

“This is the law that Congress passed,” said Danielle Murray, Conservation Lands Foundation senior legal and policy director. “To say that this rule is illegal or that conservation is not a use as directed by Congress under FLPMA is misleading to the public. This agency has never fully implemented key aspects of their mission as directed by law, specifically conservation.”

The BLM was created in 1946 by merging the federal General Land Office with the Grazing Bureau, so it started with more of a utilitarian emphasis. FLPMA sought to change that somewhat. But since the enactment of FLPMA, particularly during the Reagan administration, the multiple-use mission of the BLM eroded to where it overwhelmingly prioritizes resource extraction, Carroll said.

Of the BLM’s almost 250 million acres, less than 14% is managed for conservation while 90% is open to, but not necessarily leased by, oil and gas drilling and 60% is open to grazing.

Carroll said the rule would provide clarity, especially for local offices that are responsible for developing resource management plans. During the Trump administration, the Missoula, Lewistown and Miles City BLM Offices came out with resource management plans that eliminated some types of wildlands and prioritized timber harvest and oil and gas drilling. The plans were rescinded in October 2020 after a federal court ruled Trump’s BLM director wasn’t legitimate, having never been confirmed by Congress.

“We’ve seen the yo-yo-ing of management at the local level through the RMP process, where from one administration to the next, you have the decisions that get made on RMP’s change wildly,” Carroll said. “We think this will clarify the priorities and hopefully address that yo-yoing so the general public can have some certainty as to how that management is going to take place.”

During Wednesday's hearing, Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., who sits on the subcommittee, called the creation of the rule without input from Congress, the states or counties an “unprecedented power grab.” He said the rule violated the Taylor Grazing Act, which he said was “the law that says what those lands are to be used for,” but added that the BLM, under the rule, “would be required to manage for preservation rather than meet the multiple-use provision of FLMPA,” even though conservation is included under FLPMA’s definition of multiple-use.

Finally, Rosendale criticized the BLM for allowing 75 days for public comment, saying it shows “they are not serious about receiving public input on this issue.”

Prairie County Commissioner Todd Devlin testified before the House committee on behalf of the National Association of Counties and said the rule was vague and would exclude counties from land designation processes. He also claimed the 75-day comment period was too short so the BLM should extend that to 180 days or more preferably withdraw the rule.

Danielle Murray said she’s worked on land planning for 15 years and noted that 75 days is “a very lengthy comment period.” Most Forest Service comment periods are 30 to 60 days long, while the state of Montana has recently allowed only 15 days for comments on several state projects.

Nevada Department of Agriculture Director J.J. Goicoeachea said ranchers could be kicked off their leases if they aren’t compliant and be put out of business. He said that would have ripple effects that would cause local businesses, schools and lands to suffer.

Murray said those claims are false because while ranchers can lose a lease if they’re not compliant with BLM standards, the rule wouldn’t be responsible for that.

“The facts are not that. The facts are that the proposed rule explicitly states it does not undermine or impact any valid existing rights, doesn’t impede development on public lands,” Murray said. “I would say that conserving natural ecosystems is not ‘locking up.’ The public will have access to these lands just as they currently do. There’s no truth to these claims. The question we need to ask is do we also value protecting wildlife habitat, providing access to nature and protecting vital watersheds?”

Kyle Herrig, president of government watchdog Accountable.US, said the BLM land leasing process has been lopsided for so long that people have forgotten what “multiple use” really means. The rule will benefit all Americans, Herrig said, including tribes who, for so long, tried to save cultural or recreation areas on BLM land but had their requests fall on deaf ears.

“When (extractive industries) have benefitted from inequality for so long, equality feels like injustice,” Herrig said. “We applaud the Biden administration for beginning to reverse the unfair access these powerful special interest groups have had for decades.”

The 75-day comment period on the rule began April 4, and more than 64,500 comments have been submitted as of Wednesday. Murray said the rule is expected to be finalized within a year.

John Gale, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers vice president of policy and government relations, encouraged everyone to read the rule for themselves.

“Don’t take my word for it; don’t take the rest of the speakers’ word for it. Participate in the process. You can have your questions answered directly by the BLM, and sometimes that’s the best way,” Gale said.

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