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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 far-reaching Interior Department rule that puts conservation, recreation and renewable energy development on equal footing with resource extraction.

The final rules released Thursday mark a sea change in the management of about 245 million acres of public property, about one-tenth of the nation’s land area. The move is expected to draw praise from conservationists and legal challenges from fossil fuel industry groups and Republican officials, some of whom have lambasted the move as a “land grab.”

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

“Today’s final rule helps restore balance to our public lands as we continue to use the best science to restore habitat, guide strategies and responsible development, and Maintaining our public lands for future generations.

Under President Biden, the Bureau of Land Management is placing greater emphasis on protecting public lands from the twin threats of climate change and development. Bureau Director Tracy Stone-Manning warned that a hotter, drier climate is causing longer and more severe wildfires and droughts in the American West. At the same time, development has fragmented and destroyed wildlife habitats and migration corridors.

“We manage 245 million acres, and every land manager will tell you, climate change is already happening. It’s already affecting our public lands,” Stone-Manning said during a Washington Post live event last year. “We’re seeing this in a very clear way through unprecedented wildfires.”

The fossil fuel industry, a frequent foe of the Biden administration, is angry about the Bureau of Land Management’s approach. It called the public lands rule an example of regulatory overreach that would stifle domestic energy production, even though the United States produces more oil than any country in history.

Catherine Sgama, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies, said the group plans to challenge the Bureau of Land Management’s ruling in court. She said the policy appeared to violate the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which was enacted in 1976 and puts the agency in charge of overseeing “multiple uses” of public lands for current and future generations.

“We have no choice but to file a lawsuit,” Sgamma said. “These conservation leases appear to be designed to prevent energy development on federal lands.”

Proposed rules released by the Bureau of Land Management 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 claim the Bureau of Land Management is colluding with liberal environmental groups to ban millions of acres from development.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said Thursday he plans to introduce legislation to repeal BLM rules using the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to overturn regulations with a simple majority vote. “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 “disinformation 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) claimed that the draft rule would allow Chinese citizens to purchase leases on U.S. land.

Unlike the proposed rule, the final rule clarifies that “foreign persons cannot hold leases.” It also offers “restoration leases” and “mitigation leases” instead of “conservation leases” — a linguistic tweak that seems designed to sidestep the politicization of the word “conservation,” Weiss said.

Mitigation leases will allow lessees to to offset the impact of its activities. For example, ranchers whose land is degraded by cattle grazing may be required to purchase a mitigation lease as part of the permitting process. Ranchers can then work with local conservation groups to restore nearby habitat for sage grouse, an endangered bird in the West.

Renewable energy developers are not immune to the rule. Danielle Murray, vice president of conservation policy at the Conservation Land Foundation, said companies may be required to purchase mitigation leases if their wind or solar farms are impacting wildlife or watersheds.

The final rule also directs the Bureau of Land Management to prioritize landscape health for the first time and incorporate Indigenous knowledge into its decision-making. The latter is a top priority for Haaland, the first Native American to serve as Cabinet secretary and heading the department once responsible for removing Native people from their lands.

The Trump administration has taken a radically different approach to managing public lands than Biden officials. President Donald Trump briefly moved the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colorado, a natural gas production hotspot. More than 87% of affected employees have either resigned or retired rather than move to Colorado, depriving the agency of expertise and disrupting its operations.

Trump leads BLM William Perry Pendley was a conservative attorney who had previously advocated for the sale of public lands across the country. Pendley, who was never confirmed by the Senate, pushed the agency to maximize oil, gas and mineral development.

Pendley said in a recent interview that if Trump returns to office, “the first priority has to be oil and gas.”


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