One thing opponents and supporters of a recently proposed US Bureau of Land Management rule agree on: It would be a major change in how the agency manages nearly 250 million acres of federal land. .
The rule would allow conservation leases, similar to how the agency auctions off parcels of land for mining, cattle grazing or oil and gas development. Supporters say the proposal would elevate conservation to the level of extractive uses, a responsible move to protect lands affected by climate change.
Outraged opponents, including many congressional Republicans, view the rule as a drastic overreach that violates existing law. Fears that conservation leases will evict grazing permit holders and others have only been stoked by Republican rhetoric on the issue.
“The BLM has shown time and time again that its goal is to drastically reduce, or even eliminate, grazing on public lands, and this proposed rule is the latest iteration of this effort,” Washington Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse said in a statement. a statement of May 22. announcing a bill to block the proposed rule.
But the rule would have little or no impact on existing users of federal land, supporters of the proposal say.
They say opponents have been sidetracked by an inherent mistrust of President Joe Biden’s administration, apprehension about a big change in the agency that runs their livelihoods, or misinformation fed by oil and gas allies.
“There has been a lot of confusion surrounding the proposed rule,” Danielle Murray, legal and policy director for advocacy group Conservation Lands Foundation, said on a news call. “There are false claims that this rule would drive ranchers off their land, it would mean the end of oil and gas development, it would shut out the public.
“The facts are that the proposed rule explicitly states that it does not undermine or affect any valid existing rights.”
John Gale, vice president of policy and government relations for the nonpartisan conservation group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said he was surprised by the immediacy of the opposition.
“It feels a bit instinctive,” he said in an interview. “It is premature to make judgments like that or jump to dramatic conclusions that drown in hyperbole. That seems to be what is happening at the moment, and it is, of course, political in nature.”
‘Everything in my power to stop this proposal’
Republicans in Congress responded quickly and outraged to the proposed rule, calling it a violation of the federal Land Policy and Management Act that governs how the BLM is supposed to manage public lands.
“The Biden Administration’s extreme unilateral action will end multi-use,” Wyoming Republican John Barrasso, a ranking member of the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement on the day BLM published the proposed rule. “This is a clear violation of the law. I will do everything in my power to stop this proposal.”
Montana Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale accused Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland of violating federal public land law by proposing the rule during a US House of Representatives Natural Resources hearing on September 19. April.
“Public lands are multi-use,” Haaland said at the hearing. “It’s putting all those uses on an equal footing.”
“They’re not supposed to be on an equal footing,” Rosendale responded. “And we must abide by the law, not the rule.”
Rosendale raised further objections to the rule at a May 24 hearing.
Opponents say the law requires the agency to manage land for multiple uses, including extractive industries like oil and gas, mining and grazing. Conservation is not a “use” as defined by law, they say.
But the law also explicitly assigns the agency management of land for conservation purposes, advocates and legal experts say, though the BLM has rarely put conservation on the same level as extractive uses.
The law directs the agency to manage various uses, including oil and gas, grazing, but also to protect the land’s historic, ecological, environmental and other values, said Bailey Brennan, a public lands attorney with the advocacy group National Wildlife Federation, in an interview.
“Historically, for the last 40 years, BLM has managed public lands with an emphasis on the most extractive uses: grazing, mining, oil and gas development,” he said. “This is bringing conservation to the forefront of those other extractive uses, according to FLPMA… Congress was very deliberate in including language to the effect of conservation.”
Other opponents have said the rule adds no value to existing BLM work. The agency already does conservation work, partnering with states to carry out “significant conservation projects,” Nevada Director of Agriculture Dr. JJ Goicoechea said at the May 24 hearing.
“Do we need them on public land? Absolutely,” she said. “I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel. I think we have the tools we have now. The agency is overloaded. They can’t do the job they’re being challenged to do now and (if) we’re going to put another level on top of that, we’re going to see other things slip away.”
The Biden administration lacks credibility with the extractive industries, especially oil and gas producers, who use public lands, and their mostly Republican political allies, following the president’s first-day executive order to halt oil leasing and gas on public lands, Gale said.
The hiatus was good policy, Gale said, but it tanked Biden’s relationship with the industry.
“That got them out the door, and they’ve never been back since,” he said. “Now, there is an assumption that they are trying other ways to achieve what they wanted in the beginning. And so they’re looking for bad intentions behind every blade of grass and every bit of sagebrush on BLM land.”
The rhetoric about the new proposal was reminiscent of an earlier Biden administration initiative to protect 30% of US land and water by 2030.
“We’re seeing some of those 30×30-like arguments,” Murray said.
Conservatives, especially in Western states, used that initiative as a symbol of government overreach, inspiring conspiracy theories about seizing private property.
Such fears can occur when people do not have enough information about a policy that could drastically affect their livelihoods. The agency hasn’t been as explicit as it could be in proposing that other uses be maintained, Gale said. That has left a void for those users to imagine worst-case scenarios, she said.
“In the absence of information and knowledge, sometimes people draw dramatic conclusions for themselves,” he said. “That is some of what is happening here. And I hope they will participate in the actual public meetings to clear up some of these things.”
Brennan, who has lived in Wyoming her entire life, said she understood why ranchers and others whose livelihoods depend on access to public lands would care about a major change in how that access is managed.
He encouraged people with concerns to get involved in the conversation to shape the proposal.
The BLM is in the midst of a series of five public meetings to hear from those who would be affected by the proposal. The most recent was on May 25 in Denver and the next will be on Tuesday in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Another live meeting will be held in Reno and the last meeting is scheduled for June 5 online.