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BLM puts conservation on equal footing with other land uses

A man stands in the sage brush, framed by red rocks.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media
A rock formation in the BLM's White Mountain Petroglyphs area in Sweetwater County.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is officially recognizing ‘conservation’ as one of the multiple uses of land it oversees, and it’s controversial with lawmakers in Wyoming.

The BLM is required to manage its 245 million acres, 18.4 million of which are in Wyoming, for multiple uses that include recreation, livestock grazing and energy development – and now, that list includes conservation. This is part of the agency’s final Public Lands Rule that was announced this month.

Meghan Riley, wildlife program manager with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, applauded the efforts.

“It just makes sure that values such as wildlife habitat, healthy watersheds, healthy soils and public access to go out and and enjoy these areas are all considered in concert with some of the other needs that we have on those lands,” Riley said.

The BLM will still lease land for livestock grazing or energy development, but now, also conservation. For example, groups could lease some parcels of land to help with watershed management, migration routes and habitat – all efforts to try to keep the land intact for ecosystem health, with an eye toward climate change.

“The impacts of climate change — including prolonged drought, increasing wildfires, and an influx of invasive species — pose increasing risks to communities, wildlife and ecosystems,” according to a BLM press release. “The Public Lands Rule will help the BLM navigate changing conditions on the ground, while helping public lands continue to serve as economic drivers across the West.”

The agency specifies this doesn’t mean that conservation takes priority over other land uses.

But, Wyoming’s political leaders aren’t so sure. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) has vowed to try to repeal it using the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to get involved with final rules from federal agencies. However, the Act is limited by strict time limits and as Wyofile reported, that time has passed for it to be used on the BLM’s Public Lands Rule.

Barrasso also introduced legislation almost a year ago to try to block the rule – that’s when the BLM first announced draft language for the rule.

“The people of Wyoming depend on access to public lands for their livelihoods – including energy and mineral production, grazing, and recreation,” Barrasso said in a recent press release.

The release goes on to say, “In effect, this rule will turn thousands of acres of federal lands from ‘multiple-use’ into ‘non-use.’”

It alludes to the new rule’s prioritization of identifying more Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) for official designation. These are “areas where special management is needed to protect important resources, such as wildlife habitat, cultural, historical, or scenic values, or to protect human life and safety,” according to the BLM. ACECs designations are guided by public input and the rules and stipulations around ACECs are flexible – but typically recreation is limited to designated trails and in some areas grazing might be limited or there might be seasonal closures. An example of an ACEC in Wyoming is the White Mountain Petroglyphs in Sweetwater County.

Wyoming’s Gov. Mark Gordon also thinks the rule is a big mistake, saying that Wyoming already takes conservation very seriously. Gordon testified to Congress last year, and he pointed to the state’s efforts to protect big game migration routes and restore land after energy development.

“Simply put, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” Gordon testified. “The best solution is to rescind this rule.”

But, the BLM insisted in its language of the rule that this isn’t a threat to other uses of the federal land.

“The rule does not prioritize conservation above other multiple uses. It also does not preclude other uses where conservation use is occurring,” according to the final rule. “Many uses are compatible with different types of conservation use, such as sustainable recreation, grazing, and habitat management. The rule also does not enable conservation use to occur in places where an existing, authorized and incompatible use is occurring.”

The rule will officially take place in about a month – once the rule is filed in the Federal Register, which will likely happen soon, it goes into effect in 30 days.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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