Land Under B.L.M. Management to Get New Protections

The Biden administration on Thursday announced a new federal rule for the nation’s sprawling public lands that puts conservation on par with activities like grazing, energy development and mining.

The new rule relates to areas overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, some 245 million acres that make up a tenth of the country’s land, mainly in the West. It elevates conservation in a number of ways, including by creating two new kinds of leases for the restoration of degraded lands and for offsetting environmental damage.

These lands have long been managed for “multiple uses,” including cattle ranching, drilling and recreation. But some of those activities, combined with new pressures from wildfires and drought, both fueled by climate change, have taken a toll.

“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.”

Last year, congressional Republicans and other opponents reacted with outrage to an earlier version of the lease idea, accusing the Biden administration of a land-grab and of putting national security in jeopardy by allowing foreign entities to tie up land that could have critical economic and geopolitical uses like mineral extraction. The final rule clarifies that leases will be issued only to qualified groups, will not be issued to foreigners and will not be issued when incompatible with existing uses.

Nevertheless, backlash came quickly.

“With this rule, President Biden is allowing federal bureaucrats to destroy our way of life,” Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said in a statement. He vowed to introduce a Congressional Review Act resolution “to repeal this outrageous rule.”

The National Mining Association said the measure would obstruct responsible domestic mining projects and deepen reliance on imports.

Industry groups are expected to challenge the rule in court.

The rule is the latest in a flurry of environmental announcements and decisions from the Biden Administration, including denying permission for a road through Alaskan wilderness and restoring endangered species protections.

Conservation groups praised the latest announcement.

“It’s very exciting,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation advocacy group. He noted the rule’s importance in laying out a path to navigate increasing demands on public lands.

“Figuring out how to balance all that while public lands are under pressure from climate change is the biggest challenge, I’d say, in the entire West today,” he said.

Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said the rule “amounts to a generation-defining shift in how we manage our shared natural resources.”

Of more than 200,000 public comments submitted on the proposed version of the rule, the overwhelming majority were supportive, according to an analysis by the Center for Western Priorities.

Protecting environmental health has always been part of the Bureau of Land Management’s mandate. But conservation has been largely sidelined in decision-making over how land is used, experts say. This new rule is intended to change that. It notes that if ecosystems collapse, they cannot deliver “clean air and water, food and fiber, wildlife habitat, natural carbon storage, and more.”

Under its provisions, the Bureau of Land Management will measure land health everywhere, instead of only focusing on grazing land, and allows for greater protection of intact landscapes and habitat connectivity.

During fiscal year 2022, the various activities on its lands generated $262.7 billion in economic output across the country, according to the agency.

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