On April 3, 2023, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed regulations that would update how the agency approaches public land management “by prioritizing the health and resilience of ecosystems across those lands.” The updates are important, and have the potential for significant impact, because BLM manages nearly 10% of the United States, or almost 250 million acres.
The need for the rule is based on a simple premise—the resilience of public lands is essential to BLM’s mission “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” This is particularly acute given the widespread impacts of climate change and species loss. The “multiple use” mandate of the Federal Land Management and Policy Act (FLPMA) reinforces the idea that long-term resilience is essential; this means managing “the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people. . . . The proposed rule sums it up nicely: “Without ensuring that native ecosystems are functioning and resilient, the agency risks failing on this commitment to the future.”
The rule, “Conservation and Landscape Health,” would pursue that mission by clarifying that FLPMA’s multiple-use mandate includes conservation as a “use,” expanding existing land health standards to all BLM-managed lands, requiring priority designation and protection of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and establishing conservation leases.
Undoubtedly, BLM’s action is aimed at meeting some of the Biden Administration’s goals related to climate change and biodiversity, in particular the America the Beautiful Initiative, often called 30 by 30. In Executive Order No. 14008, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” President Biden set a goal to conserve 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030. Since then, an Interagency Working Group has issued annual reports, in 2021 and 2022, and multiple agencies collaborated to issue millions in grant funding through the America the Beautiful Challenge to tribes, states, and nonprofit organizations to help advance this agenda. An interactive map is underway. While many questions remain about how this initiative will unfold, BLM’s proposed rule would strengthen the agency’s existing tools and add a new one to the belt.
One path to promoting resilience on more acres is by extending BLM’s fundamentals of land health beyond grazing on rangelands to encompass all renewable-resource management. The fundamentals include properly functioning watersheds, ecological processes that support healthy biotic communities, water quality that complies with standards and is achieving (or making progress to) BLM management objectives, and the restoration or maintenance of habitats for endangered, threatened, and special status species. Moreover, it would require meeting these fundamentals at a watershed scale. The proposed rule provides that this should be informed by “high-quality information” that is “derived largely from assessing, inventorying, and monitoring renewable resources, as well as Indigenous Knowledge.” The rule provides definitions of these key terms. Notably, Indigenous knowledge has a higher burden to be considered “high-quality information,” as it must both meet the “high-quality” standards and must also be “authoritative [and] consensually obtained.”
Prioritizing Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACECs, is another strategy BLM is pursuing to promote resilience on public lands. ACECs are those areas that require special attention “to protect important natural, cultural, and scenic resources, and to protect against natural hazards.” The rule attempts to consolidate existing procedure, a combination of regulation and guidance, giving “more cohesive direction and consistency to the agency’s ACEC designation process.” More importantly, it would make identifying, evaluating, and designating ACECs a priority when BLM is going through the FLPMA planning process.
Acting on BLM’s broad authority to use “leases . . . or other instruments” to regulate public lands, the proposed rule also sets out definitions and criteria for conservation leasing. Available to qualified individuals, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and tribal governments, the leases would provide a way to pursue ecosystem resilience through mitigation and restoration of those lands. To obtain a lease, an applicant would need to provide detailed information on the proposed use and scheduled restoration, as well as a description of how it all will conform with BLM plans, programs, and policies. The lease duration would depend on the lease objective, with a proposed timeline of renewable terms of 10 years for leases associated with restoration and protection purposes.
The rule provides opportunity for public comment, which remains open through July 5, 2023. Interested commenters can submit comments online. The agency is proactively seeking input on several issues, including:
- How will applying land health fundamentals to non-grazing lands interact with the agency’s management of non-renewable resources?
- How might the rule provide specific direction on conserving forest health and resilience on BLM-managed lands?
- There are a number of questions related to conservation leasing, including: Should state and local governments, including the agencies that manage fish and wildlife, be eligible to hold conservation leases?; Is the term “conservation lease” the best term for this tool?; What is the appropriate default duration for the leases?; Should the application of leases to certain lands be constrained in any way?; How should leases work within the National Landscape Conservation System?; and How should fair market value for restoration or preservation be determined?
Interested in ways to best structure a comment? Check out this ELI resource on writing effective public comments.