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New Biden rule encourages preservation of public lands



New Biden rule encourages preservation of public lands

Ecosystem conservation and restoration will now receive the same attention as oil drilling, logging and grazing by America’s largest land manager, according to a final rule released Thursday.

The Bureau of Land Management’s final Public Lands Rule, first proposed last year, confronts the agency’s long legacy of prioritizing the extraction of federal lands in which every American has an equal stake.

“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.”

The rule directs BLM – the nation’s largest land manager – to “protect intact landscapes, restore degraded habitats, and make sensible management decisions based on science and data.” The agency will also be charged with incorporating land health assessments into its decisions about how land is used.

The biggest change from when the rule was first proposed last year involves a new tool designed to promote land protection and ecosystem restoration. The concept was initially advanced as a system of broader “conservation leases,” but the BLM ultimately opted to create separate “restoration leases” and “mitigation leases.” Restoration leases will be available to individuals, organizations, and government agencies interested in improving or restoring public lands, while mitigation leases are specifically intended to offset the impacts of the development or use of other lands.

The new leases will not restrict public access, except for temporary restrictions during restoration work, and “shall not override any valid existing rights,” the rule says.

The new rule will also make it easier for BLM to designate “areas of critical environmental importance,” allowing the agency to preserve more of its properties as wilderness-like areas by discouraging extractive uses or the construction of new roads. The agency can use the designation to promote both landscape protection and habitat connectivity, which is critical for wildlife.

The changes could have been that far-reaching consequences for an agency long derided by environmentalists as the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining.”

About 90% of BLM’s assets remained open for leasing by the oil and gas industry as of 2022. This is evident from a report by the Center for American Progress. And compared to other major federal land agencies, far less of the acreage enjoys BLM protections intended to protect natural resources.

“This reign is a tribute to our obligation to current and future generations to ensure our public lands and waters remain healthy amid increasing pressures and changes,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a statement.

Environmental groups and public land advocates called the final rule long overdue.

“For too long, the BLM has allowed the extractive industries to have their way with our public lands,” Kate Groetzinger, communications manager for the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement. “That has led to degraded landscapes across the West and the decline of iconic species such as the sage-grouse. This rule gives the BLM the tools it needs to right these wrongs and improve the health of our public lands.”

Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, called it “a generation-defining shift in the way we manage our shared natural resources.”

Conservation groups have accused the BLM of failing to uphold its mission to “sustain the health, diversity and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Despite that clear mandate, fossil fuel-aligned Republicans have condemned BLM’s plan, arguing that the effort actually undermines the agency’s multi-use mandate and fuels fears that it threatens to devastate Western communities.

In a statement Thursday, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said more than 1.6 million dollars in campaign contributions in the oil and gas industry during his career, he promised to introduce a Congressional Review Act resolution to “repeal this outrageous rule.”

“Wyoming residents depend on access to public lands for their livelihoods – including energy and mineral production, grazing and recreation,” he said. “With this rule, President Biden is allowing federal bureaucrats to destroy our way of life.”

Thursday’s rule comes less than a week after the Interior Department overhauled its long-outdated oil and gas leasing program, which significantly increased the amount energy companies must pay to lease and drill federal lands.