America’s largest land manager would become a far greater environmental steward under a sweeping rule proposed Thursday.
The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Public Lands Rule, which is open to public comment, would put conservation “on equal footing with other uses,” including energy development, timber harvest and grazing, the Interior Department announced.
The proposed change would mark a major shift for an agency critics say has long prioritized industry over conservation.
“Our public lands provide so many benefits — clean water, wildlife habitat, food, energy and lifetime memories, to name just a few — and it’s our job to ensure the same for future generations,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Mannings said in a statement, “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.”
The proposed rule would direct BLM to “protect intact landscapes, restore degraded habitat, and make wise management decisions based on science and data.” In addition, BLM would have to incorporate land health assessments into its decisions on land use.
It would allow BLM to issue “conservation leases,” a new tool to promote land protection and ecosystem restoration. The leases would allow members of the public to sponsor lands for protection and restoration for terms up to a decade long. Conservation leases would not bar public access, the proposed rule says, with the exception of temporary restrictions used to help restore degraded land.
And it would prioritize the creation of more Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) — an agency designation that limits environmentally destructive uses like mining and drilling.
For the better part of two decades, conservationists with Wild Arizona have pressed BLM to expand an ACEC north of the Grand Canyon that acts as a key wildlife corridor connecting one of the state’s major mule deer herds to the high plateaus of southern Utah. Wild Arizona Director Kelly Burke felt confident that the proposed rule could make it easier to secure land protections like those more quickly.
“This is genuinely exciting,” Burke said. “I think it could have a profound impact.”
BLM is the country’s largest land manager, overseeing roughly a quarter-billion acres of federal land — or 10% of the entire U.S. landmass. Environmentalists and local politicians nationwide have pressed the Biden administration to use his executive authority to protect more federal lands from development, viewing BLM’s holdings as perhaps the country’s single largest land conservation opportunity.
But conservation efforts by BLM have historically lagged behind those of similar agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service or the National Park Service. Instead, BLM has largely prioritized leasing its lands for mining, drilling for oil and gas, and livestock grazing.
Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Colorado-based Center for Western Priorities, called the proposal an “explicit statement of values” and potentially “transformative” in that it prioritizes ecosystem health and resilience across BLM lands.
“Managing ecosystems means putting conservation of those lands first,” he said.
The proposed policy shift came as welcome news for environmental groups.
“Rebalancing the Bureau of Land Management by focusing its priorities on conservation will better safeguard our nation’s lands, waters and wildlife and strengthen agency partnerships with tribes and local communities to protect the places they cherish for years to come,” Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “Better managing public lands for ecosystem resilience in the face of climate pressure, as this rule proposes, is a piece of the puzzle in making our nation’s lands and waters a solution for addressing severe threats to public health and the natural world.”
The BLM announcement came within hours of House Republicans passing a sweeping energy bill — nicknamed the “Polluters Over People Act” by its critics — that would dismantle Biden’s climate agenda and chart an entirely different future for America’s public lands. The legislation would also mandate increased oil and gas development on federal lands and waters and slash royalties for drilling on federal lands.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) condemned the measure as “a giveaway to Big Oil pretending to be an energy package.” The bill has no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate.