Questions Remain but Response is Largely Positive
by Clayton Daughenbaugh
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) directs the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to manage the public lands under its charge “on the basis of multiple use and sustained yield” and to do so “in a manner that – among other things – will preserve and protect certain lands in their natural conditions.” Given that FLPMA became law in 1976 you might be forgiven for presuming that by now (nearly 50 years later) the agency would have established a comprehensive framework to implement its sustained yield mandate and concentrate on preserving and protecting lands. It hasn’t. But now it’s trying.
The BLM Proposed Rule (1, 2) is intended to do several laudable things: a) prioritize the health and resilience of ecosystems across public lands; b) protect intact landscapes and restore degraded habitat; c) apply land health standards to all BLM managed public lands uses; d) clarify that conservation is a “use” within the multiple-use framework; e) revise regulations so the agency better meets FLPMA’s requirement prioritizing Areas of Critical Environment Concern (ACECs). Importantly, all of this work is geared towards leveling the playing field and making sure conservation is treated the same as other uses of the public lands. As the BLM explains: “The proposed rule does not prioritize conservation above other uses; it puts conservation on an equal footing with other uses.” (The BLM has a handy and thorough webpage on the rule at https://www.blm.gov/public-lands-rule ).
The conservation community has largely rallied around the proposed rule saying greater emphasis on conservation as required by FLPMA is long overdue and it could help address long standing concerns regarding climate, biodiversity loss, and consultation with Native American tribal governments. Nevertheless, calls for improvement are widespread and well founded.
Arch Canyon, Bears Ears Monument.
Photo: Ray Bloxham
Some have noted the omission of Lands With Wilderness Character (LWCs) in the draft rule. LWCs are areas the BLM has already inventoried and determined to have wild qualities but have only rarely been protected by the agency. Providing those protections should be a natural place for the agency to identify “intact landscapes” and start ramping up the conservation priority contained in FLPMA.
Another area of focus among conservation groups has been the further prioritization of ACECs in the proposed rule. The consensus is the final rule needs to do better by this important designation. ACECs are specifically identified in FLPMA as places the BLM must prioritize – both designation and protection – and thus comments have urged the agency to include a presumption of designation as the agency considers potential ACECs with eligibility criteria including habitat connectivity and biodiversity. One place especially called out as an opportunity for ACECs is the protection and restoration of old and mature forests.
The general areas of recommended improvements correspond with a set of several congressional letters of support that have been sent to Interior Secretary Haaland over the last year. The letters, led by Sen. Durbin (IL), Sen. Heinrich (NM), Rep. Huffman (CA) and Rep. DeGette (CO) have highlighted the importance of BLM using all the tools in its administrative toolbox to conserve public lands, including the designation of new wilderness study areas (something that can occur now, separate and apart from finalizing the Rule) and ACECs. While not directed towards the proposed Rule they do give further credence to the improvements to it voiced by conservation organizations.
Though the tone of the draft Rule is even handed and the stated objectives easily track with the letter and spirit of FLPMA as well as accepted elements of conservation biology, some in Congress have reacted with vehement opposition. Rep. Curtis of Utah (Chair of the GOP Climate Caucus) and Sen. Barrasso of Wyoming (ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee) introduced companion bills (3,4) both of which would “require the Director of the BLM to withdraw a rule of the BLM relating to conservation and landscape health” and preclude anything similar from being advanced in the future. In a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee Rep. Westerman (Chair of the Committee) said the Rule would mean a “seismic shift” in BLM management and Rep. Stauber (MN) characterized it as a land grab driven by an “extreme, radical climate activist agenda.” Opposition to Curtis’ bill was led by Rep. Huffman (CA) and Rep. Stansbury (NM) who said the rule would “help us manage our lands in a more balanced way” and noted that “Much of what I’ve heard here today is just not true.” The Committee approved Curtis’ bill (HR 3397) on a party-line vote; debate and a possible vote before the full House of Representatives are likely. The Senate bill (S.1435) awaits Committee action.
Muley Point near Mexican Hat in San Juan County, Utah.
Photo: Clayton Daughenbaugh
Much of the debate surrounding the draft rule focuses on a new tool — “conservation leases” that would be used to restore and conserve certain lands. BLM says such leases would allow an external entity such as a Tribal Nation or non-governmental organization to “enter into an agreement with the BLM to help achieve restoration or mitigation outcomes”. Some in the GOP claim this would allow the removal of public lands from livestock grazing and mining by environmental groups, though the plain language of the draft rule makes it clear this is not the goal. On the other hand, many in the conservation community support the concept as a new tool to mitigate damage and encourage restoration efforts of “natural environments, cultural or historic resources, and ecological communities. “ Some have voiced concerns that the leases, by granting specified management authority to private entities, could become a means of further privatizing public lands.
Muddy Creek Wilderness Addition in southern Utah.
Photo: Ray Bloxham
The Sierra Club submitted extensive comments with an emphasis on protecting habitat connectivity, migration corridors, and the core areas of intact lands tied with those features. In that context the Club joined the call for protecting identified Lands With Wilderness Character (LWCs). Conservation leases, it said, should be used “for the purpose of ensuring ecosystem resilience through protecting, managing, or restoring natural environments, cultural or historic resources, and ecological communities including species and their habitats” and rejected the practice of “chaining” pinyon/juniper woodlands as an acceptable tool for the leases. In addition, the Sierra Club wrote that the agency should site utility-scale solar projects only within BLM designated priority Solar Energy Zones with low impacts and lying near existing substation and transmission infrastructure in order to “avoid unnecessary and undue degradation”.
It’s refreshing to see the Bureau of Land Management saying:
“it is imperative for the BLM to steward public lands to maintain functioning and productive ecosystems and work to ensure their resilience, that is, to ensure that ecosystems and their components can absorb, or recover from, the effects of disturbances and environmental change. This proposed rule would pursue that goal through protection, restoration, or improvement of essential ecological structures and functions. The resilience of public lands will determine the BLM's ability to effectively manage for multiple use and sustained yield over the long term.”
As always, the proof is in the pudding. Time will tell.
The comment period on the draft rule closed July 5 with over 90% of the 150,000+ comments submitted speaking favorably of the rule. (5) The agency will take several months to review the submissions and make revisions before announcing a final rule which is anticipated to occur around the end of the year.
Clayton Daughenbaugh is the Organizing Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and volunteers as the Vice-Chair of the Sierra Club’s Wildlands and Wilderness Grassroots Network Team.