The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to give conservation uses of the land it manages “equal footing” with grazing, energy production, mining, and recreation, and to even allow companies to lease lands for environmental mitigation.

Under a proposed rule, the agency could issue conservation leases to individuals, businesses, nongovernmental organizations or tribal governments for up to 10 years to protect or restore habitats and ecosystems. Businesses, for example, could lease BLM land to offset their environmental impact on the private land they are developing.

BLM, which manages 245 million acres, emphasized in the rule that the conservation leases should not disturb existing authorizations or preclude land from being used for other purposes, such as mining, grazing and recreation.

“This proposed rule is intended to raise conservation up to be on par with other uses under the principles of multiple use and sustained yield,” the rule says.

The rule also expands land-health standards, which are currently needed for only grazing, to apply to all land-use purposes.

The BLM said in a release that it also intends to use the rule to “better manage” public lands during wildfires, drought and severe storms.

“As the nation continues to face unprecedented drought, increasing wildfires and the declining health of our landscapes, our public lands are under growing pressure,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in the release. “It is our responsibility to use the best tools available to restore wildlife habitat, plan for smart development, and conserve the most important places for the benefit of the generations to come,”

Bailey Brennan, public lands attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, sees conservation leasing as a “flexible” and “creative” way to restore degraded lands and waters that offsets environmental impacts to public lands without limiting other uses.

“We are excited to see the agency take this proactive measure and rebalance its priorities to take a closer look at land health and habitat,” she told Agri-Pulse.

Kaitlynn GloverKaitlynn Glover, PLC

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Natural Resources Defense Council also applauded the measure.

But cattle producer groups and some Republican lawmakers aren’t so happy.

Kaitlynn Glover, the executive director of the Public Lands Council, which is affiliated with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told Agri-Pulse that she was concerned that the conservation leases could be used to “rubber-stamp” the removal of grazing on certain lands. She added that neither NCBA nor the Public Lands Council had been consulted about the rule before its introduction.

“We have fairly substantive concerns that this is a means by which to prioritize a unilateral and very specific, narrow view of what conservation looks like above all other uses,” she told Agri-Pulse.

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She noted, however, that there were some aspects the Public Lands Council was supportive of, like applying land health assessments to more entities.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., also expressed his concern about the proposal, saying in a statement that he believed it undermined the agency’s “multiple use” mandate, which requires public lands to be “utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.” 

“The Biden Administration’s extreme unilateral action will kill multiple use,” Barrasso said. “This is a clear violation of the law. I will do everything in my power to stop this proposal.”

BLM will accept public comments on the rule through June 20.

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