Biden administration officials on Monday tried to assuage concerns they want to bar oil drilling, cattle grazing and other activities from vast state-owned lands, as they met opposition from Republicans and ranchers and a controversial proposal to put conservation on par with the to provide industry.
The proposal would allow conservationists and others to lease federally owned land to restore it, much like oil companies buy leases for wells and ranchers pay to graze cattle. Leases could also be purchased on behalf of corporations, such as oil drilling companies, that wish to offset damage to public lands by restoring cropland elsewhere.
But more than a century after the US began selling grazing permits and oil and gas leases, the proposal is sparking debate, especially in the West, about the best use of public lands. Opponents, including Republican lawmakers and agribusiness officials, see it as a backdoor to shut out mining, energy development and agriculture.
Tracy Stone-Manning, director of the Bureau of Land Management, told The Associated that the proposed changes reflect increasing pressures from climate change and development. She said this would put conservation “on par” with grazing, drilling and other uses without compromising them.
The bureau has a history of industry-friendly policies for the 380,000 square miles (990,000 square kilometers) it oversees, an area more than twice the size of California. It also regulates more than 2.5 million square kilometers of publicly owned underground minerals, including oil, coal and lithium for renewable energy.
These holdings put the agency at the center of arguments about how much development should be allowed.
Senior officials from the bureau hosted the first virtual public meeting on the conservation proposal on Monday night. There was no opportunity for public comment and questions put to officials were reviewed by the agency. However, officials confirmed that they had received numerous inquiries about the potential exclusion of grazing and drilling.
Brian St George, acting deputy director of the bureau, said the conservation leases “won’t lock land in perpetuity”.
“It would have a term, and when that recovery goal is met, the term would expire,” he said.
US Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who tried to block Stone-Manning’s Senate confirmation for 2021, says the proposed rule is illegal.
Earlier this month he berated Home Secretary Deb Haaland during a hearing at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, saying she was giving “radicals a new tool to shut out the public”.
“The secretary wants to capitalize on the disuse,” said Barrasso, the senior Republican on the committee. “She… turns federal law on its head.”
Stone-Manning told the AP that critics misinterpreted the rule and that conservation leases would not usurp existing ones. If grazing is now allowed on a plot, it could continue. And people could continue to hunt on the leased property or use it for recreation, she said.
“It makes conservation an equal part of the multiple uses we manage,” said Stone-Manning. “There are rules for how we do solar development. There are rules for the way we deal with oil and gas. There were no rules for how we comply with the parts of the[Federal Act]that say, “Care for fish and wildlife habitat, care for clean water.””
Democratic US Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada — where the Federal Land Bureau controls about two-thirds of the land — urged the government to work with ranchers and farmers before finalizing the proposal, which the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says will save the country Management in the West would “turn it upside down”.
Although the agency has issued conservation leases on limited occasions in the past, it never had a dedicated program to do so.
Former President Donald Trump tried to push fossil fuel development in office space, but President Joe Biden suspended leasing new oil and gas contracts when he took office. Biden later resumed the accords to enlist the support of Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin for last year’s climate bill.
Biden remains under intense pressure from Manchin and many Republicans to allow more drilling. Currently, these companies lease approximately 37,500 square miles (97,000 square kilometers) of office space.
The pending rule would also encourage the establishment of additional “critical environmental risk” areas due to their historical, cultural or wildlife conservation importance. More than 1,000 such sites covering approximately 33,000 square miles (85,000 square kilometers) have already been designated.
In comparison, about 242,000 square miles (627,000 square kilometers) of office land is available for grazing cattle.
Environmentalists have largely welcomed the changes, calling the proposal long overdue.
Joel Webster of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of conservation groups and hunting and fishing organizations, said the government’s plan would establish a process to ensure landscapes are considered for conservation without enforcing restrictions.
However, he warned that administration officials must ensure that any final rule has no unintended consequences.
Another virtual event is scheduled for June 5 and public meetings are scheduled for May 25 in Denver; May 30 in Reno, Nevada; and June 1 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.