Biden boosts conservation in BLM public lands rule

By Scott Streater | 04/18/2024 01:30 PM EDT

The change in the much-anticipated BLM rule puts protection and restoration of lands on par with other uses, such as oil drilling and grazing.

The Deep Creek Mountains in Utah are managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Deep Creek Mountains in Utah are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

The Bureau of Land Management announced Thursday it has finalized a sweeping new public lands rule that places conservation and restoration of public lands on equal footing with energy development and mining.

The final rule implements a suite of conservation policy tools and initiatives BLM offices are directed to employ in an effort to protect natural spaces and restore lands in the face of a warming climate.

The rule states that urgent action is needed to preserve and restore federal rangelands against drought and increased wildfires, or the 245 million acres BLM oversees will no longer be able in the coming decades to support grazing, recreation or energy development.


“The rule does not prioritize conservation above other multiple uses. It also does not preclude other uses where conservation use is occurring,” according to the final rule. “Many uses are compatible with different types of conservation use, such as sustainable recreation, grazing, and habitat management. The rule also does not enable conservation use to occur in places where an existing, authorized, and incompatible use is occurring.”

Critics, including the National Mining Association, blasted the final rule as an effort to block energy production and mining, and a betrayal of BLM’s mandate to accommodate a range of uses beyond conservation.

But it’s a victory for conservation groups and other supporters who see it as a major and long-overdue policy shift for an agency they say has too often favored ranching, oil and gas drilling or mining over the preservation and health of federal rangelands.

The rule will formally take effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register, presumably in the coming days.

The final BLM rule is among a handful of major policy changes, rules and initiatives rolled out within the past week as President Joe Biden looks to bolster his appeal to conservationists and young climate activists during an election year.

“As stewards of America’s public lands, the Interior Department takes seriously our role in helping bolster landscape resilience in the face of worsening climate impacts,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “Today’s final rule helps restore balance to our public lands as we continue using the best-available science to restore habitats, guide strategic and responsible development, and sustain our public lands for generations to come.”

First unveiled by BLM in March 2023, the rule for the first time designates conservation as a public lands management priority, on par with energy development, grazing and recreation.

One of the chief goals of doing this is to try and preserve the most pristine public lands, and restore the most degraded, as BLM deals with the stresses of a warming climate, drought conditions and increased visitation to its sites.

The final rule states that it is not designed to limit or block oil and gas development, mining, or recreation.

Rather, the goal is balance, said John Podesta, Biden’s senior adviser for international climate policy.

“Today’s final rule from the Department of the Interior is a huge win for ensuring balance on our public lands, helping them withstand the challenges of climate change and environmental threats like invasive species, and making sure they continue to provide services to the American people for decades to come,” Podesta said in a statement.

Not only does the rule require BLM field offices and districts to identify federal rangelands that need restoration work, but it also establishes a system to lease public lands for a fixed period of no more than 10 years to allow the work to be done.

Energy developers, mining companies and other land users will be able to purchase leases and use them as compensatory mitigation to offset project impacts on other lands as a condition of permit approval. The rule also allows for nongovernmental groups to buy these leases and pay to conduct restoration work on the land.

The final rule changes the terminology from “conservation leases” to “restoration leases” and “mitigation leases,” and it clarifies exactly what the leases are designed to be used for, and what groups and individuals would qualify to obtain them.

This follows months of criticism from congressional Republicans that argued environmental groups — and even “foreign entities” such as China — could purchase the leases and lock up public lands from energy development and mining for years.

The rule also prioritizes the identification for designation of BLM lands as “areas of critical environmental concern,” or ACECs, which are managed to protect specific environmental, cultural, scientific and historic resources.

And it requires that all 245 million acres of BLM-managed lands meet federally prescribed land-health standards currently limited only to livestock grazing allotments.

“This broad application includes uses, such as oil and gas development and renewable energy generation, that are likely to result in at least local impacts to land health. This rule requires the BLM to take ‘appropriate action’ where a specific land use is a factor in failing to achieve land health,” the rule says.

All of this is authorized in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the 1976 law that established BLM’s multiple-use and sustained yield mandate for both present and future generations, BLM said.

“This rule honors our obligation to current and future generations to help ensure our public lands and waters remain healthy amid growing pressures and change,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said.

The proposed rule sparked a lot of attention when first unveiled last year. BLM received more than 216,000 public comments.

It drew immediate opposition, particularly from Western Republican congressional leaders.

House Republicans targeted the proposed rule in their Interior-Environment spending bill for fiscal 2024, including an amendment that would have forbidden BLM from implementing the rule. The measure was not included in the spending bills Senate and House appropriators released in early March, and that Biden later signed into law.

Livestock ranchers also raised objections, particularly about the conservation leases and the emphasis on areas of critical environmental concern.

The final rule specifically states that it is not intended to remove livestock grazing from federal lands and that responsibly managed grazing is consistent with proper land management.

Another big critic is the oil and gas industry, which has signaled its intent to litigate the rule when finalized.

Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, also said the final rule “flies in the face” of BLM’s multiple use mandate.

“By putting its thumb on the scales to strongly favor conservation over other uses, this rule will obstruct responsible domestic mining projects and compound permitting challenges, further deepening our already grave foreign mineral import reliance,” Nolan said in a statement.

But Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, called the final rule “a generation-defining shift in how we manage our shared natural resources.”

Reporters Jennifer Yachnin and Hannah Northey contributed to this report.