Republican members of the House Natural Resources Committee charged Wednesday that a conservation leasing rule proposed by the Bureau of Land Management improperly circumvents congressional authority. 

The rule would allow the agency to enter into conservation leases with individuals, businesses, NGOs and tribal governments for up to 10 years to protect or restore habitats and ecosystems and make conservation an equivalent use of agency land to grazing, energy production, mining and recreation.

The rule would also give conservation uses of land "equal footing" with grazing, energy production, ming and recreation. 

Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican who chairs the committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, questioned the agency's authority to elevate conservation to a multiple use under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act without approval from Congress. 

"This proposed rule would fundamentally change the way BLM carries out its multiple use and sustained yield mandates without, I may add, authorization from Congress," he said. 

The subcommittee's top Democrat, Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico, argued the rule would actually "help to fulfill the congressional mandate of multiple use." 

"This rule will help to accelerate transitions to renewable energy while encouraging restoration of sensitive lands and protection of cultural landscapes," Stansbury said. 

BLM's multiple use mandate under FLPMA requires public land be managed not just for mineral extraction and timber harvesting but also to maintain "recreation, range, ... watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural scenic, scientific and historical values." The congressional Declaration of Policy in FLPMA also says the Secretary of Interior must "establish comprehensive rules and regulations after considering the views of the general public" when administering public land statutes.

Nevada Agriculture Director J.J. Goicoechea, who also serves as a regional vice president for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told lawmakers at the hearing that the agency's efforts "fly in the face of the multiple use mandate," 

"While the BLM has previously stated they believe grazing is a conservation tool, the rule contains no text that would make the industry confident that this rule is not targeted to remove grazing access," Goicoechea said.

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Goicoechea told lawmakers he believes the provisions of the proposed rule could "substantially alter" the multiple use balance on public lands. He cited a University of Wyoming study that said cattle sales for ranchers in Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming dependent on federal grazing would decrease by $321.3 million, or 60%, a year if grazing is removed from federal lands in the three states.

Goicoechea argued that the rule would meet the threshold for a "major rule" if it were to limit at least half the grazing allotments in Nevada, 20% of the renewable energy projects, 25% of recreation or less than 1% of nonenergy production.

This would mean the agency would need to prepare a regulatory flexibility analysis under the Regulatory Flexibility Act and a report to each house of Congress under the Congressional Review Act, Goicoechea said. The House and Senate could then consider a joint resolution of disapproval, which would overturn the rule if also signed by the president. 

New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard, on the other hand, said the proposal was not about "taking public lands away," but instead about allowing another type of use. She said it could be part of a "balanced portfolio of uses." 

"It is about explicitly allowing another type of use, which can often occur along side other lands uses," Garcia Richard said. "There may be times where various uses are incompatible, but there are also going to be many instances where are not any conflicts."

The BLM said in a Federal Register notice that the rule would not have a "significant economic effect on a substantial number of small entities" and did not qualify as a "major rule" under the Congressional Review Act. The agency also said the rule was not intended to "provide a mechanism for precluding other uses."

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include language from multiple use and Congressional Declaration of Policy sections of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.