Biden moves to protect public lands with sweeping conservation rule

For decades, the federal government has prioritized oil and gas drilling, hard-rock mining, and livestock grazing on public lands across the country. That could soon change under a sweeping Interior Department rule that puts conservation, recreation and renewable energy development on equal footing with resource extraction.

The final rule released Thursday represents a sweeping change in the management of about 245 million acres of public property, or about one-tenth of the nation’s land mass. The move is expected to draw praise from environmental advocates and legal challenges from fossil fuel industry groups and Republican officials, some of whom have blasted the move as a “land grab.”

Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, known as the nation’s largest landowner, has long offered leases to oil and gas companies, mining companies and ranchers. Now, for the first time, the nearly 80-year-old agency will auction off “restoration leases” and “mitigation leases” to entities with projects to restore or conserve public lands.

“Today’s final rule helps restore balance to our public lands as we continue to use the best available science to restore habitats, guide strategic and responsible development, and preserve our public lands for generations to come. come,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

Under President Biden, BLM has placed greater emphasis on protecting public lands from the dual threats of climate change and development. Tracy Stone-Manning, director of the office, warned that hotter, drier climates are leading to longer, more intense wildfires and droughts in the American West. At the same time, development has fragmented and destroyed wildlife habitats and migratory corridors.

“We monitor 245 million acres, and any land manager will tell you: climate change is already happening. It’s already impacting our public lands,” Stone-Manning said during a Washington Post Live event last year. “We’re seeing it pretty clearly, through unprecedented wildfires. »

The fossil fuel industry, a frequent foe of the Biden administration, has expressed outrage at BLM’s approach. He called the public lands rule an example of overregulation that would stifle domestic energy production, even though the United States pumps more oil than any other country in history.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies, said the group plans to challenge the BLM rule in court. She said the policy appears to violate the federal Land Policy and Management Act, the 1976 law that charges the office with overseeing “multiple uses” of public lands for current and future generations.

“We have no choice but to take legal action,” Sgamma said. “These conservation leases appear to be designed to prevent energy development on federal lands. »

The BLM’s proposed rule, released last year, sparked particularly intense outrage in Wyoming, an energy powerhouse that accounts for nearly a tenth of U.S. fossil fuel production. Some Wyoming Republicans have claimed that the BLM colluded with liberal environmental groups to ban development on millions of acres.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said Thursday he plans to introduce legislation to repeal the BLM rule using the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to overturn regulations with a majority vote simple. “With this rule, President Biden is allowing federal bureaucrats to destroy our way of life,” Barrasso said in a statement.

Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, an advocacy group, said some Republican officials have spread “misinformation and conspiracy theories” about the rule. He noted that at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing last year, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) said the proposed rule would allow citizens Chinese to buy leases on American land.

Unlike the proposed rule, the final rule clarifies that “leases cannot be held by foreign persons.” It also proposes “restoration leases” and “mitigation leases” rather than “conservation leases” — a linguistic change that seems designed to circumvent the politicization of the word “conservation,” Weiss said.

Mitigation leases will allow lease holders to offset the impact of their activities. For example, a rancher whose livestock grazing degrades land might be required to purchase a mitigation lease during the permitting process. The rancher could then work with a local conservation group to restore nearby habitat for the western sage-grouse, an imperiled bird.

Renewable energy developers will not be immune from the rule. They might be required to purchase mitigation leases if their wind or solar farms affect wildlife or watersheds, said Danielle Murray, vice president of conservation policy at the Conservation Lands Foundation.

The final rule also directs the BLM to prioritize landscape health for the first time and incorporate Indigenous knowledge into its decision-making process. That last point is a top priority for Haaland, the first Native American to serve as Cabinet secretary and head a department that once oversaw the removal of indigenous peoples from their lands.

The Trump administration has taken a very different approach than Biden officials when it comes to managing public lands. President Donald Trump briefly moved BLM headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colorado, a hot spot for natural gas production. More than 87 percent of affected employees resigned or retired rather than move to Colorado, stripping the agency of expertise and disrupting its operations.

To lead BLM, Trump brought in William Perry Pendley, a conservative lawyer who had previously advocated for the sale of public lands across the country. Pendley, who was never confirmed by the Senate, pushed the office to maximize oil, gas and mining development.

If Trump returns to power, “the priority has to be oil and gas,” Pendley said in a recent interview.

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