The Bureau of Land Management unveiled a sweeping draft rule Thursday that would represent a fundamental shift in how the agency manages millions of acres of public lands that are under increasing threat from climate change, drought and wildfires.
The proposed rule would apply land-health standards to all of the 245 million acres that BLM manages, instead of limiting them to federal livestock grazing allotments. The rule would also designate conservation as a formal use of public lands, on par with energy development, grazing and recreation.
The proposed changes are necessary because of the rapidly increasing impacts of climate change that have led to severe drought conditions in the West, and contributed to longer and more intense annual wildfire seasons that burn millions of acres a year, said two Interior Department officials who discussed the draft rule with reporters on condition they not be named.
“As the nation continues to face unprecedented drought, increasing wildfires and the declining health of our landscapes, our public lands are under growing pressure,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “It is our responsibility to use the best tools available to restore wildlife habitat, plan for smart development, and conserve the most important places for the benefit of the generations to come.”
On Thursday, Interior shared a copy of the draft rule it plans to publish in the Federal Register in the coming days, kicking off a 75-day public comment period. The rule likely will not be completed until next year.
Under the rule, BLM field offices and districts would be required to identify federal rangelands that need restoration work and establish 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 could purchase conservation leases and use them as compensatory mitigation to offset project impacts as a condition of permit approval. The proposed rule would also allow for nongovernment groups to buy these leases and pay to conduct restoration work on the land.
In addition, the rule proposes to codify into BLM regulations specific procedures to identify and evaluate rangelands for designation as “areas of critical environmental concern,” or ACECs. This would provide “more cohesive direction and consistency” to the designation of ACECs, which are generally managed to prioritize protection of specific plants and animals and wildlife habitat.
The draft released by Interior emphasizes that the “proposed rule does not prioritize conservation above other uses; it puts conservation on an equal footing with other uses, consistent with the plain language” in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the 1976 law that established BLM’s multiple-use and sustained yield mandate for both the present and future generations.
“This proposed rule is designed to ensure that the nation’s public lands continue to provide minerals, energy, forage, timber, and recreational opportunities, as well as habitat, protected water supplies, and landscapes that resist and recover from drought, wildfire, and other disturbances,” it says.
A ‘missed opportunity’
The unveiling of the rule provides clarity to what had been a broadly defined proposal that the Biden administration had listed in February as part of the White House semi-regulatory agenda of rules and polices to be conducted this year.
The proposed rule was also one of the policy initiatives included in President Joe Biden’s announcement last week establishing two new national monuments in Nevada and Texas, along with other proposed policy changes (Greenwire, March 21).
Some conservation groups praised the shift.
“These proposed changes are long overdue,” said Ken Rait, project director for U.S. public lands and rivers conservation at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “In the face of climate change and loss of biological diversity, BLM needs more conservation tools, and this rulemaking is an important step forward.”
Vera Smith, senior federal lands policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife, said the proposed rule is “an invaluable opportunity for the BLM to rebalance its priorities and safeguard habitats for wildlife that are trending toward extinction.”
But not everyone was as enthusiastic.
Randi Spivak, public lands policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity, likened the draft rule to “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” and called it “a missed opportunity to address the extinction and climate crises on public lands.”
“The agency’s time would be better spent addressing the root problems of public lands degradation and protecting these treasured places for future generations,” Spivak said. “Instead of addressing destructive mining, fossil fuel extraction and grazing, this rule basically restates what’s already the law. Major improvements are needed.”
It’s likely that other stakeholders are going to want to see changes before the rule is finalized.
A spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute said they are still reviewing the rule and declined to comment further on possible impacts to oil and gas leasing on public lands.
Before release of the rule, Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of the Public Lands Council, a ranching industry trade group, said that the “vague hints” of a new rulemaking from the White House last week did not “exactly go far to calm the concerns of the ranchers and other land-users who depend on regulatory stability from the BLM.”
The ranching industry group could not be reached for comment prior to publication.
But an Interior official at Thursday’s conference call with reporters reiterated the goal of keeping public lands viable for multiple uses, such as mineral extraction, by protecting healthy lands and restoring ones that need work.
“It’s focusing on landscape health so that all of the things that we do today on our public lands, and the millions of people who enjoy them today, are able to do so the same way, if we do our work right, 30 and 40 years from now,” the official said. “And that’s what this rule is really setting us up to do.”
Restoration and mitigation
The draft rule has three overarching priorities: “promoting restoration, providing for balanced responsible development, and protecting the healthy intact landscape,” according to an Interior official during the call with reporters.
When the rule is eventually finalized, and placed into effect, it may take years to see the impacts of some of these initiatives.
For example, expanding land-health standards to all BLM lands will require numerous bureau field office staffers to inspect and review millions of acres, a process that could take years.
Currently, the land health standards that apply toward the 150 million or so acres of live grazing allotments are a significant challenge, and there is a backlog that has resulted in about half of grazing permits renewals being approved without any analysis of rangeland health (E&E News PM, March 23, 2022).
But the effort would “ensure BLM programs will more formally and consistently consider the condition of public lands during decision making processes,” such as when land-use plans are renewed or updated, according to the draft rule.
It’s a practice used by other federal and state land management agencies, according to Interior.
The draft rule specifically highlights renewable energy projects on BLM lands, which would be required to “meet the fundamentals of land health overall at the watershed scale,” though it’s not clear how this would be done.
Interior officials said that the conservation leasing idea in the draft rule is not a completely new idea.
BLM last year began a similar approach involving agreements with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to use lands within a federal-state energy zone in California as mitigation to offset the impacts of environmental damage caused by solar, wind and geothermal power projects built on state and private lands (Greenwire, June 28, 2022).
Interior officials said the conservation lease idea is part of an effort to address calls from states and private companies to develop more compensatory mitigation alternatives to offset impacts on federal lands.
“This allows the public to be compensated for the impacts of development on our country’s public lands by investing in restoration and other mitigation measures that can take place on our public lands,” an Interior official said.