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BLM frustrates Gov. Gordon again with new public land conservation rule

The federal agency is adopting a framework to protect and restore landscapes, but says the measure does not prioritize conservation over grazing, drilling and mining.

By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

A new Biden administration rule will make conservation one of many recognized multiple uses on the 18.4 million acres of public land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, a move that frustrated Gov. Mark Gordon and unleashed a cascade of criticism from politicians and industry.

The 178-page final Conservation and Landscape Health Rule would “codify conservation tools” to better meet legal requirements to “protect intact natural landscapes and restore degraded landscapes to achieve ecosystem resilience.” It will become effective in about 30 days, according to an advance copy released Thursday before its publication in the Federal Register.

The federal agency manages almost 30% of Wyoming’s 62 million acres for the American public under a multiple-use mandate calling for energy development, livestock grazing, recreation and other activities. At the same time, the BLM must ensure natural, cultural and historic resources are maintained across its jurisdiction, which covers about 10% of the country.

“Historically, BLM’s multiple-use policy has focused on mining, oil and gas exploration, and other development rather than outdoor recreation and conservation on the 245 million acres [nationwide] that the agency manages,” the Pew Charitable Trusts said in a statement supporting the BLM’s action. “But now, the new rule will enable BLM to put the stewardship of wildlife habitat and cultural resources as well as Americans’ access to outdoor recreation on equal footing with other uses.”

The final rule frustrated Wyoming’s governor.

“It appears that Wyoming’s comments — and those from our people who depend on public lands for their livelihoods — were completely overlooked,” Gordon said in a statement. The BLM’s plan will “completely upend economies across the West — including grazing, recreation, and energy.”

The governor believes the agency violates both the spirit and authority vested in the BLM by federal laws, Michael Perlman, Gordon’s spokesman, said in an email.

“Any time the possibility of designating large tracts of land [arises] — with very limited multiple use — there will be an economic impact to the communities and the state,” he wrote. “Conservation has always been a high priority and considered with other land uses — such as energy development.”

Now, action by the Biden administration “upsets that long understood balance,” he wrote.

Conservation on equal footing

The rule defines “conservation” as encompassing protection and restoration “recognizing that the BLM must protect intact natural landscapes and restore degraded landscapes to achieve ecosystem resilience.” It establishes “mitigation restoration leasing” that would limit landscape-degrading actions.

But it does not “prioritize conservation above other uses,” the BLM says. “Instead, it provides for considering and, where appropriate, implementing or authorizing conservation as one of the many uses,” allowed under the Federal Land Policy Management Act that governs much of the agency’s actions.

That law requires the BLM “to give priority to the designation and protection of [Areas of Critical Environmental Concern],” the agency states. Drawing lines around such areas allows the BLM to establish special rules to protect the resources — be they greater sage grouse breeding ground leks, mule deer migration routes or other natural assets — within the zones.

Drilling and mining will continue. “No part of the rule would preclude the development or transmission of energy on or across public lands without due consideration of multiple use and sustained yield principles,” the BLM states.

The BLM received more than 152,000 comments on the proposal and referred to commenters’ views 70 times in the final rule distributed Thursday. It explained how it disagreed with some of those comments, including the potential negative impact on energy extraction.

Criticism rained on the rule, nevertheless. U.S. Sen. John Barrasso predicted doom.

“With this rule, President Biden is allowing federal bureaucrats to destroy our way of life,” he said in a statement Thursday. Barrasso will continue to fight against the rule, including by seeking its overturn in Congress, he added.

Gordon, who said last year the rule is “arguably unconstitutional,” is reviewing the document, Pearlman wrote. “There is still much to understand,” the spokesman said, but the governor is upset that the BLM didn’t give the state and its residents more consideration.

That’s a theme in the governor’s criticism of other BLM actions, including the proposed revision of the highly contested Rock Springs Area Resource Management Plan. “The way that public engagement was handled was something the Governor brought up last year, when no town halls were held by BLM in Wyoming,” Pearlman wrote.

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming challenged the BLM’s assertion that conservation will be an equal, and not superior, multiple use. The rule “will upend the nearly 50-year, multiple-use management ethos once held by the agency; elevating conservation above all other uses, such as mineral production, livestock grazing and recreation,” the association said in a statement.

Last year the group called the rule “a new, extra-legal, executive branch authority,” that creates “de facto … wilderness areas — a designation which is only lawfully achieved by an act of Congress.”

Greens love it

Conservation groups welcomed the rule, saying in a series of statements that the federal agency finally recognizes the public’s opposition to continued degradation of its property. Some 92% of commenters support strengthening conservation measures, the Center for Western Priorities said last September after a statistical analysis of comments.

“If we want Wyoming to stay the way it is, we need commitments like this from the BLM to make sure our working wildlands stay wild, and working,” said Lauren Marsh, a representative of the Wyoming Wilderness Association.

The BLM created this infographic to explain its Public Lands Rule. (BLM)

“This historic rule helps achieve the BLM’s mandate to balance competing uses by putting conservation on a level playing field with extractive industries like mining and drilling,” said Gwen Lachelt, executive director of Western Leaders Network. The rule will identify critical wildlife habitat ensuring it “thrive[s] for decades to come,” said David Willms, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation.

The Conservation Lands Foundation, The Wilderness Society and Accountable.US also issued statements of support.

“This rule amounts to a generation-defining shift in how we manage our shared natural resources,” said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society. “BLM lands make up the biggest slice of the federal estate, and now the Biden administration is putting it on the books officially that they will no longer be neglected or treated as just a source of oil and coal.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.