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The landscapes overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management are leased for oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing and many other uses. The agency says its proposal to allow conservation leases will help to restore healthy ecosystems (BLM/Flickr photo).
Across the West, a vast swath of federal land has been staked out by oil and gas drillers, miners, cattle grazers, loggers, renewable energy developers and outdoor recreationists. Soon, the federal agency that oversees those lands will allow them to be leased for a new purpose: conservation.
Earlier this year, the Bureau of Land Management proposed putting conservation on an equal footing with the other permitted uses across its 245 million acres, about 10% of the land in the United States. The new rule would strengthen the agency’s ability to protect certain landscapes and allow it to assess the health of land beyond just grazing areas.
“We have so much stress on the public lands if you look at what we’ve all seen with drought and fire and the changing landscape, as well as the demands on our public lands,” said Nada Wolff Culver, the agency’s deputy director of policy and programs. “If we want to keep [providing multiple uses] successfully for future generations, this rule is timely and necessary.”
The agency is currently reviewing public comments on the proposed rule.
Under the proposal, most conservation leases would be offered for a maximum of 10 years, with the opportunity for renewals. They could be issued to environmental groups for targeted restoration work or to developers to offset their projects’ effects on wildlife habitat.
The new rule could have far-reaching effects. In many Western states, the BLM is the largest landholding entity, making its actions crucial for wildlife migration corridors and watersheds, along with multibillion-dollar industries and the state budgets that rely on them.
Some states fear that environmentalists and the BLM will use conservation leases to block oil and gas or grazing operations. Six Republican governors have written a letter to the agency opposing the rule.
Others, though, see it as an opportunity to work in tandem with the feds to restore healthy landscapes.
‘A massive impact’
Last year, the state of Wyoming received $750 million in royalties from mineral development on its federal lands, money it used to pay for schools and roads. State leaders there fear the BLM’s new emphasis on conservation could cut back on oil and gas and coal development — along with state revenues.
“It would have a massive impact on Wyoming,” said state Sen. Brian Boner, a Republican who chairs the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee. “It absolutely would have a detrimental effect on our state budget, on our schools budget.”
In 2021, the BLM paid states more than $1.7 billion, mostly in the form of mineral royalties in Wyoming and New Mexico. But Boner’s worries aren’t just limited to the direct payouts from the feds. In many places, BLM lands exist in a checkerboard pattern interspersed with state and private lands. Many oil and gas and grazing operations, even those based on private lands, rely on access to neighboring public parcels.
“If you have an environmental group that leases the federal portion of the checkerboard, that neighboring private landowner is out of business,” Boner said. “There’s no way to practically make that work.”
Boner’s committee has urged the federal agency to withdraw the rule, and it’s looking at changing the state’s fencing law to ensure landowners aren’t forced to pay for fences if neighboring BLM land is declared off-limits to cattle.
The BLM oversees 155 million acres of grazing land, and roughly 18,000 grazing permits. Some industry groups say the new proposal could devastate ranching in the West.
“If you took federal lands grazing away, you would see the bottom dropping out of the rural economy in a lot of these places,” said Sigrid Johannes, director of government affairs and federal lands with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “In a checkerboard situation, [BLM lands] may be the only parcels that allow you to move through a landscape of intermingled private and state land.”
Johannes and other industry leaders who operate on federal land believe that conservation leases are likely to limit their access.
“This is going to severely constrict productive uses on public lands,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group that promotes oil and gas development. “The way BLM has redefined conservation makes us think they are defining it in such a way that any other use is incompatible.”
In Nevada, where 65% of the state’s land is managed by the BLM, mining and grazing industries rely heavily on those federal parcels.
“We don’t want to see this weaponized to remove larger pieces of land from economic industries,” said J.J. Goicoechea, director of the Nevada Department of Agriculture. “The way it’s written right now, it appears the conservation use will trump all other uses on public lands. Our workforce depends on multiple uses of federal lands.”
While the BLM has not specified what it will charge for conservation leases, some have called on regulators to set market prices that account for the value of other activities that may be preempted by conservation.
The federal agency acknowledges the economic significance its lands have for Western states. Last year, it estimated that activities on BLM lands exceeded $200 billion in economic output and produced nearly 800,000 jobs.
But agency leaders say industries’ fears are overblown. Culver, the BLM official, said that conservation leases could not be used to override existing projects or permits. And she pledged the feds would work closely with landowners on “checkerboard” landscapes to assess the best locations for conservation leases.
“The conclusion our experts reached was that there was not a quantifiable likely economic impact to industries or state budgets that depend on them,” she said. “We expect to continue making the significant economic contributions we do to so many communities across the West.”
Culver noted that many state wildlife agencies require developers to restore certain landscapes to offset habitat disruptions elsewhere. Opening public lands for such “compensatory mitigation” projects could actually help companies speed up construction of projects like wind and solar farms, she said.
Meanwhile, she said, conservation programs will be designed to work in tandem with cattle grazers, not kick them off the land. The Biden administration, Culver said, is confident it can add conservation as a permitted use without cutting back on existing industries.
New Mexico draws more economic output from BLM lands than any other state, largely in the form of oil and gas development. But leaders there don’t see the proposal as doomsday for their economy.
“We’re excited, because we’re already doing something similar on state land,” said Stephanie Garcia Richard, the state’s public lands commissioner. “We are naturally moving away from the days of oil and gas providing 50% of our budget. Will this speed up the process? I don’t think it will have that big of an impact.”
New Mexico is working to create its own conservation lease system for state lands, and it’s heavily focused on work to promote water conservation and drought resilience. The BLM proposal allows the state to envision more “landscape-level” projects that cross state and federal boundaries.
Garcia Richard called on the feds to make states eligible to apply for conservation leases. Culver said the agency has received significant public input on that question and will continue to evaluate which entities can hold conservation leases.
In some places, environmental groups say their state leaders need BLM support to ensure their investments in restoration are successful.
“Administrative boundaries are largely artificial when it comes to the concerns of wildlife,” said Brien Webster, public lands campaign manager with Conservation Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit. “This rulemaking is going to provide us the opportunity to restore mule deer habitat in one section and sage grouse habitat in another. In one area, it can help us deal with the impacts of a wildfire that threatens water quality for a local community.”
In Arizona, the federal agency has sold or exchanged some of its lands in the Sonoran Desert, said Mike Quigley, Arizona state director with The Wilderness Society, a nonprofit conservation group.
“That’s habitat loss and conversion,” he said. “When BLM identifies lands that are eligible for disposal, having conservation on an equal footing will help balance those things.”
Culver, the BLM official, said the proposal would help foster collaboration with states on projects like wildlife corridors and drought resilience. And keeping those landscapes out of the emergency room, she said, will help provide long-term stability for the industries that rely on them.
“Conservation leasing can ensure that we are able to achieve these very ambitious goals that Congress set us — to somehow maintain functioning landscapes while permitting so many multiple uses,” she said.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Stateline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott Greenberger for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Stateline on Facebook and Twitter.