A ‘seismic shift’ for public lands?

The new Public Lands Rule would put conservation on par with other uses.


This is an installment of the Landline, a fortnightly newsletter from High Country News about land, water, wildlife, climate and conservation in the Western United States. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

The Biden administration looks to reform public-land management

Entities could lease land to restore and heal it.

On March 30, the Interior Department issued a draft of a new Public Lands Rule, designed to “guide the balanced management of public lands” and put conservation on a par with other uses of federal lands, such as grazing, oil and gas drilling and mining. “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.”

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland delivers remarks at the White House Conservation In Action Summit at the U.S. Interior Department in March in Washington, DC.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The proposed rule, which is open to public comment until June 20, was praised as a “seismic shift” in land management by E&E News, though a hardline environmental group downplayed it as merely “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” The think-tank Pew Research Center described the proposal as a “start to change” the development-over-conservation dynamic. Meanwhile, Sen. John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican, compared the bureaucrats who wrote the “decree” to the tree-spiking eco-warriors of the 1980s, while the ranching industry feels “betrayed” by what it says is a plan to eradicate grazing on public lands.

I’ll get to the specifics of the draft rule in a moment, but first let’s go back nearly five decades to the time when the Carter administration set out to implement the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976, which required that public lands be managed for multiple uses and sustained yields rather than to maximize extraction. While that may not sound radical today, at the time it represented a significant break from the status quo.

In a rousing March 1977 speech, newly appointed Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus minced no words when describing the shift: At Interior we have begun to make sweeping institutional and policy changes to end what I see as the domination of the department by mining, oil and other special interests,” he said. We intend to exercise our stewardship of public lands and natural resources in a manner that will make the three Rs’ — rape, ruin and run — a thing of the past.”

Much to the disappointment of conservationists, FLPMA did not overturn the Mining Law of 1872 or the General Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. However, it did end the long-standing practice of disposing” of federal lands to states, corporations or individuals. It also tossed out a provision in the 1866 Mining Act that granted anyone the right to build a road across the public domain without a permit, and it opened the door to wilderness designations on Bureau of Land Management lands. Or, as Andrus put it, “The initials BLM no longer stand for Bureau of Livestock and Mining.”

That did not go over well with the ranching, mining and oil and gas industries or their political supporters. The resulting backlash helped spark the Sagebrush Rebellion across the rural West, with the powerful beef livestock lobby aligning with oil and gas and mining interests and right-wing ideological crusaders to push back against what they saw as a challenge to their right to exploit public lands, something that would just encourage an invasion of backpackers and “toadstool worshippers.” The Rebellion died down, at least for a while, when Ronald Reagan was elected president and Interior Secretary James Watt eviscerated most of Andrus’ reforms and then some, putting livestock and mining rights back into “BLM.”

Supporters of the Sagebrush Rebellion gathered for a July 4th, 1980 celebration in Grand County, Utah.
TheRealDeJureTour via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the Interior Department’s rhetoric around the proposed rule has been far less incendiary than Andrus’ was. Instead of singling out mining and ranching, the current rule says public lands are being degraded by climate change-exacerbated drought, wildfire and invasive species. The rule’s text explains its purpose: “This proposed rule is designed to ensure … 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.”

The proposed rule:

  • “ … clarifies that conservation is a use on par with other uses of the public lands under FLPMAs multiple-use and sustained-yield framework,” according to the text posted in the Federal Register. The proposed rule does not prioritize conservation above other uses.”

This probably sounds like it doesn’t change anything. And yet it’s this provision that has really raised industry’s hackles. Mallori Miller of the Independent Petroleum Producers Association told S&P Global that ”the administration is making a policy shift of gigantic proportions … by giving conservation equal footing to all other public land uses.”

Is it just me, or does that sound a bit like an acknowledgment that the feds have always, as a matter of course, favored industry over preservation as a matter of course? Nah, I must be imagining things…

  • “… applies the fundamentals of land health and related standards and guidelines to all BLM-managed public lands and uses; current BLM policy limits their application to grazing authorizations.”

When the BLM issues a grazing permit, it’s supposed to ensure that watersheds, riparian areas, water quality, habitat and ecological processes remain healthy. These same land-health standards have never been applied to non-grazing uses of public lands, and that would change under this rule. The problem, however, as critics have pointed out, is that the agency has never done a decent job of enforcing these standards for livestock operators, so how can it be expected to start doing so now, given the 245 million acres it is tasked with overseeing?

Cliven Bundy's cows graze on BLM land within the Gold Butte National Monument on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, in Logandale, Nevada. He refuses to pay grazing fees back to 1993 as the cattle continue to damage the fragile environment.
L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

In contrast, the ranching industry praised this provision since it means livestock operators will no longer be singled out.

  • “… establishes a durable mechanism, conservation leases, to promote both protection and restoration on the public lands, while providing opportunities for engaging the public in the management of public lands for this purpose.”

When I first heard about this provision I thought (more accurately, hoped) it would allow environmentalists to bid on oil and gas leases and, if they won, prevent drilling on the parcel in question, a la Tim DeChristopher, who went to jail for trying this, since it was illegal at the time to buy a lease and then not drill it. Alas, that is not quite the case. Instead, the rule would make conservation leases available to entities that seek to restore public lands or provide mitigation for a particular action. A nonprofit could lease a parcel, pay rent and post a reclamation bond to do riparian area restoration, for example, or a solar company might lease a parcel to do some land-healing to offset its impacts to other public land.

The lease would not override valid existing rights, though it would preclude the parcel from being leased for drilling or mining or grazing during the extendable 10-year term. The leases might also block future leasing for uses deemed incompatible with the conservation work. The BLM is seeking public input on whether to limit the lands that would be available for conservation leasing, as well as on what the appropriate time term and bonding requirements should be, and whether to have bonding requirements in place, if, for example, a sovereign Indigenous nation were to restore or preserve an area of cultural importance.

  • “… amend the existing ACEC (Area of Critical Environmental Concern) regulations to ensure that the BLM is meeting FLPMA’s command to give priority to the designation and protection of ACECs.” The changes would emphasize the areas as the primary designation for protecting important natural, cultural, and scenic resources and contributing to ecosystem resilience by protecting intact landscapes and preserving habitat connectivity. It would also establish a more comprehensive framework for identifying and evaluating these areas.

The designation “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” is currently used to protect sites of cultural and ecological importance. A couple of decades ago, for example, the agency designated areas of critical concern in and around major sites in northwestern New Mexico that are associated with Chaco Culture National Historic Park but lie outside its boundaries. Drilling and other development is now prohibited around those sites, though landscape-scale features remain vulnerable.

The new rule would codify procedures developed over the last 40 years to provide consistency. But it would also beef up the protective strength of the provision by requiring “consideration of ecosystem resilience, landscape-level needs, and rapidly changing landscape conditions” when designating and managing ACECs.

  • “ … requires meaningful consultation during decision making processes with Tribes and Alaska Native Corporations on issues that affect their interests, including the use of Indigenous knowledge.”

Federal land-management agencies already are required to consult with tribal nations on “issues that affect their interests,” though in many cases the consultation has been cursory inadequate, often just a matter of checking off a few boxes. In 2021, the Biden administration issued an order aimed at strengthening tribal consultation and opening doors to tribal co-stewardship of public lands. The proposed rule reinforces that order and its associated guidance.

In a statement reacting to the rule’s announcement, Keegan King of Acoma Pueblo, CEO of the nascent nonprofit the Native Lands Institute, praised the “BLM’s renewed focus on conservation, recreation, and cultural resource protection” signaled by the proposed rule.

SO, IS THIS NEW RULE FLPMA Part II? Or is it merely a return to the principles that FLPMA originally set out, but that the agencies strayed away from over the years? Will it end “rape, ruin and run” for good? And, if so, will that spark yet another Sagebrush Rebellion? (Not that the previous one has ever quite ended.)

The answers largely depend on what the final rule looks like, and, to some extent, when it is implemented. If Interior does not move quickly and a less conservation-friendly administration takes control of the White House in 2024, then the new rule could be tossed out relatively easily.

I’ll leave you with some more of Andrus’ words from 46 years ago, which ring truer than ever today: “Conservation is no longer a pious ideal — it is an element of our survival, and my efforts will focus on curbing old habits of overconsumption and misuse, seeking instead to use less and to use better. The days when economic interests exercised control over decisions on the public domain are past. The publics lands will be managed in the interest of all the people because they belong to all the people. For too long, much of the land where the deer and the antelope play has been managed primarily for livestock often to the detriment of wildlife.”

Hold the Line: Stories from HCN and elsewhere that are worth your time

The Berkeley Pit on the edge of Butte, Montana, is a huge, defunct copper mine that has become one of the world’s largest bodies of acid mine drainage-tainted water. Unfortunately, it also offers a tempting — and deadly — landing spot for migratory birds, a combination that killed some 3,000 snow geese in 2016. To avoid a repeat, the companies responsible for the toxic lake have tried to engineer the problem away. But their efforts were futile, as Sarah Trent reports for High Country News, because they failed to account for waterfowl ecology or behavior. Now, ecologists are helping engineers devise better solutions to the bird vs. toxic pit problem. | High Country News

The colonial narrative of horses in the Americas goes something like this: The ancestors of today’s equines roamed North America for millions of years before going extinct about 10,000 years ago after the last Ice Age ended. Spanish colonists then brought them back to the Southwest in the 1500s. When the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 drove the Spaniards back to what is now Mexico, the horses they abandoned scattered onto the Great Plains and other parts of the West. Indigenous histories have always contradicted this account, however. And now a new study has shed further doubt on elements of the colonial story, showing that horses not only roamed the Great Plains long before previously assumed, but were important parts of Indigenous societies before the colonists arrive. Two of the study’s authors illuminate the findings and debunk the old myth for The Conservation. | The Conversation and republished at HCN.

Whoops! In the last Landline, we got a bit carried away with our account of the massive 1983 spring runoff on the Colorado River, writing that the “rising waters cratered Glen Canyon Dam’s spillways and then spilled dramatically over the top of the dam.” Not quite. Cavitation did, indeed, crater the spillway tunnels, forcing them to be shut down to prevent further damage. That caused the reservoir to overflow the top of the spillway gates, but big plywood slats installed as a quick fix kept the water from actually spilling over the dam. So, the lake overflowed, dramatically, but did not spill over.


We want to hear from you!

If you were to be offered a conservation lease for BLM-managed parcel of your choice (see above for details), where would you want that lease to be and what kind of restoration work would you do? Let us know, and we may run your response in a future Landline.

Your news tips, comments, ideas and feedback are appreciated and often shared. Give Jonathan a ring at the Landline, 970-648-4472, or send us an email at [email protected].


Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 


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