BLM finalizes rule allowing federal leases aimed at protecting natural areas

Public lands in the Montana Mountains provide access to the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Nevada. (Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)

The Bureau of Land Management will soon publish a final rule allowing the nation’s public lands to be leased for environmental protection, according to a news release from the Department of the Interior.

The rule, which both supporters and opponents say marks a shift in the agency’s focus on conservation, directs land managers at the agency to identify landscapes in need of restoration and make plans to meet those needs.

Two new rental forms are also being created that focus on the protection of nature reserves. The BLM already leases parcels for extractive industries, including energy development, mining and ranching.

The rule is likely to spark a conflict in Congress, where Republicans immediately renewed their criticism of President Joe Biden’s conservation policies on Thursday.

In a departure from the March 2023 draft rule that proposed a new category of conservation leases, the final rule will allow for two new types of leases: restoration and mitigation.

According to an agency fact sheet, restoration leases “will be a tool to invest in the health of our public lands.” Tenants would be empowered to work to restore land, including land degraded by other uses.

Likewise, mitigation leases can be a tool to offset the impacts of other BLM land uses. The agency said an example could be that a solar company with a facility on BLM land could receive a mitigation lease to restore nearby habitat to mitigate the impact of its development.

The rule is consistent with BLM’s multiple-use mandate, which requires balancing energy development, mining, recreation and other uses on the nation’s public lands, the agency said.

“As stewards of America’s public lands, the Department of the Interior takes seriously our role in helping strengthen the resilience of the landscape 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 to use the best available science to restore habitats, guide strategic and responsible development, and preserve our public lands for generations to come.”

BLM released a 178-page preliminary version of the rule on Thursday, saying a substantially similar version will be published as a final rule “in the coming days.”

Congress fights ahead

The rule has sparked polarized reactions since the draft proposal was released in March 2023.

Reaction to the final rule from across the political spectrum began within minutes of the announcement on Thursday.

Conservation groups and environmentalists cheered the rule for prioritizing conservation, while Republicans worried it would restrict other uses of public lands.

The Mountain Pact, a coalition of local leaders from Western states, released a statement praising the rule.

“The BLM’s Public Lands Rule emphasizes the need for the agency to work with local communities to focus on land, water and wildlife conservation to ensure communities have access to federal public lands in the future while combating the growing impacts of climate change,” Patrice Horstman, chair of the Coconino County, Arizona Board of Supervisors, said in the statement.

David Willms, vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, said in a written statement that the rule gives BLM “new tools to restore and conserve degraded lands while supporting robust local economies. The rule will help the agency identify intact landscapes that wildlife depend on for survival and ensure they can thrive for decades to come.”

Democrats in Congress also welcomed the measure.

Diana DeGette of Colorado, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Climate, called the move “a significant achievement for land conservation and wildlife protection.”

“I am proud that BLM and the Biden administration continue to lead the way in defending our natural world,” she said in a statement.

Promise to withdraw

But Republicans vowed to reverse it.

Senator from Wyoming. Johannes Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, vowed that he and North Dakota’s senior Republican senator would challenge the rule with a resolution under the Congressional Review Act. The law allows lawmakers to try to repeal executive branch regulations.

“Wyoming residents depend on access to public lands for their livelihoods – including energy and mineral production, grazing and recreation,” Barrasso said in a statement. “With this rule, President Biden is allowing federal bureaucrats to destroy our way of life. Senator John Hoeven and I will introduce a Congressional Review Act resolution to repeal this outrageous rule.”

The closely divided U.S. Senate has approved Congressional Review Act resolutions on environmental and agriculture issues that target Democrats from rural states or states in tough reelection races, such as centrist West Virginian Joe Manchin III, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown or Jon Tester from Montana, who joined the Republicans.

Republicans on the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee passed a bill last year, sponsored by Republican John Curtis of Utah, to prevent the rule from taking effect. The legislation has not received a vote from the full House.

“This rule from the Biden administration undermines the very people who rely on our federal lands for ranching, grazing, recreation and more,” Curtis said in a news release Thursday.

House Natural Resources Chairman Bruce Westerman of Arkansas said Thursday he would do “everything in his power” to get Curtis’ bill through the House.

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