COMMENTARY | What will BLM’s new Public Lands Rule Mean for Conservation?

Chandra Rosenthal

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What will BLM’s new Public Lands Rule Mean for Conservation?

Last week, the Department of the Interior announced a final rule designed to elevate conservation to equal status with traditional energy development, resource extraction, and grazing agenda on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The rule has garnered widespread praise from conservation groups and threats of lawsuits from those opposed to the rule. What does the rule say, and what is our take on it?

Well, as usual, our position is a bit nuanced.

Since 1976, when Congress mandated that BLM take a multi-use approach to land management, BLM has minimized the value conservation, healthy wildlife populations, and outdoor recreation in its land management decisions and has failed to adequately address climate change in its planning and on-the-ground management decisions.

The final rule, known as the Public Lands Rule, is designed to address these shortcomings by:

  • Directing BLM to use Land Health Standards to manage lands for landscape health. The rule instructs BLM to access, evaluate, and determine if all 245 million acres of land it manages meet land health standards. Prior to this rule, BLM only used these standards to assess the health of lands managed for livestock grazing, or about 155 million acres. Now, BLM will use land health standards to determine whether the land health is appropriate for the use—that is, make management decisions to achieve and maintain healthy lands.
  • Setting up a process for issuing restoration and mitigation leases. The rule sets up a process for the agency to issue restoration and mitigation leases for entities seeking to restore public lands or mitigate reasonably foreseeable impacts of authorized activities. Issuing conservation leases will be a completely new BLM program. Individuals, businesses, non-governmental organizations, tribal governments, conservation districts, and state fish and wildlife agencies will be eligible to apply for and receive leases.
  • Prioritizing the designation and management of ACECs. The rule provides greater details about how BLM will prioritize the designation and protection of Areas of Critical Environmental Concerns (ACECs). ACECs are areas where special management is needed to protect important historical, cultural, or scenic values or to protect fish and wildlife or other natural resources.

The rule’s ultimate success is not guaranteed. Rather, it will depend on whether BLM has the resources to implement it and the willingness to challenge entrenched economic interests.

The rule has many positive aspects. We are excited that it seeks to strengthen and expand ACECs. We are seeing real progress on the ground. The BLM is already aiming to conserve about 2.2 million acres through the use of ACECs. That is a good thing and a much needed change at BLM.

We are also pleased to see that BLM is requiring the use of native seeds when “designing and implementing “ restoration projects. This is a much-needed change, especially considering that in 2020, only about 1/8 of the grasses and 1/4 of the forbs that BLM purchased for its warehouses were native source identified seeds.

Here are a few of these obstacles and concerns we have about the rule:

  • BLM is significantly underfunded, understaffed, and not transparent.

It is unlikely that BLM will be able to take on all the new work required by this new without cutting corners. Historically, BLM is one of the most understaffed land management agencies. For example, in 2022, BLM had only 4.18 employees for every 100,000 acres of land to manage, while National Parks had a whopping 24.57 employees for every 100,000 acres of land. Yet, BLM lands are managed for far more complex multiple uses, including grazing, mining, oil and gas drilling, and recreation use, than are most Park Service lands. At the same time, BLM is getting thinner, with only 10,242 employees in 2022 compared to 10,356 in 2015.

These resource constraints are evident in BLM’s program to assess the health of the grazing lands it manages. Without a massive influx of funds and greater transparency, we question how BLM can expand its use of land health standards when it is doing a poor job on its current land health program.

For example, BLM data collected by PEER and recently updated on our website shows that at the end of 2023, 50% percent of the lands assessed, or 56,751,890 million acres, do not meet BLM’s own land health standards and that over 36 million acres of the 155 million acres of rangeland have yet even to be assessed. These findings are just one indication that BLM lacks the staff and resources to assess the land health of 100 million additional acres and manage a new nationwide conservation and mitigation leasing program meaningfully.

  • Economic interests hold great sway at BLM.

BLM’s dominant management culture is resistant to change and often lacks the political will to take substantial actions to address land health failures on the lands it manages. The oil and gas, mining, and grazing interests hold great political power in Congress and the states where BLM operates. In addition to these traditional sources of political power, the renewable energy industry is also looking to BLM lands for major solar, wind, and utility transmission buildouts. Whether BLM is able to elevate the role of conservation in its decision-making will depend on the support of senior leaders, Congressional backers, and the public supporting these changes over the long term.

We do have cause for concern. In the preamble to the proposed rule, for example, BLM states, “Lands have become increasingly degraded through the appearance of invasive species, prolonged drought, and habitat fragmentation.” Nowhere does it mention that one of the main causes of the degradation of land quality on BLM lands is livestock grazing. For BLM to improve the quality of land it manages and better address climate impacts, it will need to address the role cattle and sheep grazing play in the destruction of these lands.

  • A new leasing program brings BLM into uncharted territory.

Another concern is that the rule creates mechanisms to allow the leasing of public lands for conservation and mitigation purposes. As previously mentioned, we doubt whether BLM has the resources to manage a new leasing program properly. In addition, we believe that conservation programs on public lands should be run and managed by the BLM.

When BLM leases public land, it gives “privileges,” or a quasi-property right, to an outside entity. This individual, corporation, or government entity then controls many aspects of the land’s use. One concern is that extractive and polluting industries with significant climate impacts, like oil and gas development, may attempt to legitimize their businesses with “offsets” on public lands. This could result in the federal government greenlighting additional projects generated on public lands leased by third parties or on land held by private parties.

Another concern is that the public may have little opportunity to weigh in on conservation leases. For example, in 2023, BLM renewed the majority of its grazing leases for another ten years without the opportunity for public comment. There are no clear rules for public input into these new types of leases, which concerns us.

Conservation clearly needs a boost at BLM. However, this rule is neither a panacea for conservation nor the end of business as usual for the BLM. Politically connected entities will continue to work to ensure public lands are managed to their benefit while BLM struggles with complicated mission and serious resource constraints. Our goal at PEER is to make sure, in light of these changes, that BLM, in fact, elevates the importance of conservation in its work, its staff are supported, and BLM operates in a more transparent manner.


Chandra Rosenthal / Staff PhotoChandra Rosenthal is the Director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain Office located in Denver, Colorado.

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