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House Republicans aim to block a BLM land management proposal

The proposal would make conservation a land use equivalent to others

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, speaks during the House Natural Resources Committee hearing on his legislation on June 15.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, speaks during the House Natural Resources Committee hearing on his legislation on June 15. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to change how the agency considers conservation programs on public lands has drawn the opposition of Republicans, including an effort to stop it with legislation. 

The House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled Wednesday to mark up a bill by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, that would block the BLM, which manages 245 million acres of public lands, from finalizing the rule or anything “substantially similar.” 

The agency’s April draft proposal would change its methodology and make conservation a “use,” putting it on the same level as energy exploration, grazing and recreation. The proposal would also allow conservation leases, enabling others to conserve BLM lands, and would apply land health standards to BLM acreage. The current law limits such standards to livestock grazing allotments. 

The BLM extended the comment period through July 5 and expects to finalize it by the end of the year, according to the spring Unified Agenda released June 13.

“This rule would devastate rural economies across the West,” said House Natural Resources Chairman Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., at a hearing last week. “Under the guise of conservation the rule would only further this administration’s radical preservationist agenda.”

Republicans say the administration is attempting to finalize a rule that would lock westerners out of nearby public lands. South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem and Wyoming Republican Gov. Mark Gordon opposed the rule at the hearing last week. Some livestock, fossil fuel and renewable energy groups have also expressed concerns about the proposal.

The National Association of Counties said that the “BLM would fundamentally change the BLM’s multiple-use mandate under FLPMA without input from Congress.” The 1976 law known as the Federal Land Policy and Management Act is the governing statute.

Sixteen Republican senators raised similar concerns about congressional intent in a May 11 letter to BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning. They said Congress provided no authority for conservation leases.

The BLM said the proposals would allow it to respond to climate change, conserve critical wildlife habitats and better recognize cultural and natural resources on public lands.

Nada Wolff Culver, BLM’s deputy director for policy and programs, defended the rule at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the bill, saying the proposal is a way to protect lands under “severe stress”

“The proposed rule would help provide necessary direction to public land managers to work towards resilient healthy landscapes that can support the full breadth of multiple use now and into the future,” said Wolff Culver. “Recognizing that not every use can always occur on every acre, the BLM is working to ensure the appropriate balance of uses within the multiple use framework on every acre.”

Supporters of the proposal said that existing authority allows the BLM to finalize the regulation.

“The agency has never implemented key aspects of their mission as directed by law, specifically conservation,” said Danielle Murray, senior policy and legal director for the Conservation Lands Foundation. “And mainly it’s because they lacked real guidance on how to include conservation in planning, so this rule would fix that making the agency more in line with the law.”

In a June 12 letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, 45 Democratic members of Congress supported the regulation, urging its finalization but with changes to address tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. They said the rule would have the benefit of leveraging funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law (PL 117-58) and the climate and health care reconciliation bill (PL 117-169) “towards restoration and improving land health.”

Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., said her Republican colleagues were turning the proposal into a “culture wars issue.”

“I really take umbrage at folks who are trying to scare the American people and especially Westerners, as somebody who grew up in the West,” said Stansbury. “This is really just another opportunity to help support conservation across the West.”

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