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BLM adopts rule described as a ‘generation-defining’ shift for America’s largest land manager

The Bureau of Land Management on Thursday adopted a long-awaited rule that aims to put conservation initiatives “on equal footing” with oil and gas leasing, grazing and other commercial uses of federal land.

The rule “combines our ongoing work with a vision for conservation to help us manage lands into the 21st century,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a video announcing the rule. “It ensures that the BLM can carry out its multiple-use and sustained-yield mission now and into the future — a mission that includes providing minerals, energy, forage, timber and recreational opportunities, and now a renewed commitment to conservation.”

This shift by the country’s largest land manager has been applauded by conservation and environmental organizations and criticized by oil and gas and agricultural groups. 

It will, among other things, allow the BLM to lease land for “restoration” and “mitigation.” The agency said these leases will help it meet water security, biodiversity and climate objectives. 

“From the most rugged backcountry spots to popular close-to-home recreation areas, these reforms will help deliver cleaner water, healthier lands, abundant wildlife, and more recreation opportunities for all of us,” White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said in a release.

BLM Principal Deputy Director Nada Wolff Culver said the rule’s monitoring and modeling components, paired with conversations with those reliant on BLM land, will help the agency gauge its progress.

“BLM already has regulations around oil and gas, grazing and timber — around many of the things we do — but until now, we didn’t have regulations addressing the conservation side of our mission,” Wolff Culver said. 

The Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams described the rule as a “generation-defining shift in how we manage our shared natural resources.”

“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,” Williams said in a statement. “These lands will also be stewarded as sanctuary for wildlife, stronghold for Indigenous cultural sites, haven for outdoor recreation and engine for a robust and responsible clean energy revolution.”

“We applaud the BLM for finalizing the Public Lands Rule,” Marne Hayes with Business for Montana’s Outdoors said in a statement. “The final rule aligns management decisions with our business interests by ensuring the BLM considers conservation and the uses that are instrumental to Montana’s $2.4 billion outdoor recreation economy, which provides nearly 30,000 jobs and contributes $1.4 billion in compensation statewide.”

Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma criticized the rule, saying the BLM is “upending the balance that has been achieved for decades on federal lands” and the rule runs counter to the Federal Land Management and Policy Act and the Mineral Leasing Act.

“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.”

The Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams 

“There are hundreds of millions of acres set aside for wilderness and national parks and other protected designations, but there are also working landscapes all across the West that provide food, fuel and fiber for all Americans. This rule would make it much more difficult, if not impossible in many areas, to operate on BLM lands,” she said in an interview with Montana Free Press. She added that she anticipates her group will file a lawsuit to overturn the rule and expects “that red states will also be litigating.”

The rule has garnered criticism from elected officials in Montana, including Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who argued that it “further privatizes public lands” and threatens small businesses and “important state interests” in a press release in July opposing the change.

In an emailed statement on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke said the rule is “about control” and “a direct threat to communities that create jobs, fund their schools, and build their livelihoods on grazing, mining, energy production and outdoor recreation.”

The BLM manages more than eight million acres in Montana, making it the state’s second-largest land manager behind the U.S. Forest Service. 

The agency received more than 216,000 comments on the proposal during a 90-day public comment period it initiated last spring. 

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