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BLM Public Lands Rule: Why is it Important in Greater Yellowstone?

Despite 90 percent support in public comment period, new rule faces strong opposition from resource-extraction advocates

Part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management last month finalized the Public Lands Rule, which expands its multiple-use mandate to include restoration and mitigation leases alongside other resource extraction leases. Despite widespread support, it faces opposition from resource-extraction groups. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM
Part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management last month finalized the Public Lands Rule, which expands its multiple-use mandate to include restoration and mitigation leases alongside other resource extraction leases. Despite widespread support, it faces opposition from resource-extraction groups. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM
by Julia Barton

Roughly one in every 10 acres in the United States is public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, an area totaling 245 million acres. And about 15 percent of this land sits in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. These landscapes are federally stewarded for recreation, livestock grazing, mining and drilling, among other uses, per BLM’s governing law, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

The agency last month finalized a ruling that expands its multiple use mandate to include restoration and mitigation leases alongside other resource extraction leases in what Kathy Rinaldi, deputy director of conservation at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said is the “most significant change in the management of BLM lands in 50 years.”

The final Public Lands Rule was published in the Federal Register on May 9, 2024 following a lengthy drafting process that began over a year ago.

Understanding the importance of the Public Lands Rule requires looking back at FLPMA and its political context, explained Michael Carroll, BLM campaign director at the Wilderness Society. Shortly after the bill’s enactment, Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential victory began an eight-year run.

“[The Reagan administration’s] vision for public lands was that they were here for oil and gas development, mining, logging, all that kind of stuff,” Carroll told Mountain Journal. “Because of that, they basically didn’t do the regulatory framework for conservation, even though everything that’s called out in the new Public Lands Rule is actually pointing to and directed by FLPMA.”
The new Public Lands Rule aims to prioritize conservation alongside resource extraction.
Not much changed with the way BLM managed land over the following decades, according to Carroll, until the Biden administration’s 2020 assessment of climate and biodiversity on public lands. They found that climate-related impacts including fires, drought and insects have had an increased impact on the landscape over the past two decades, prompting the new rule.

Carroll believes climate impacts are hindering federal land managers from fulfilling their mission, which BLM says is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” The new Public Lands Rule addresses this by prioritizing conservation alongside resource extraction.

In the final ruling, BLM renames “conservation leases” as “restoration leases” and “mitigation leases.” The former focuses on restoring degraded landscapes. For example, a landowner may take out a restoration lease on adjacent BLM land overrun with invasive grasses to restore native plant life, improving both the leased and private land. The latter lease type offsets impacts from extractive practices like mining and oil drilling on public land. Instead of leasing private land for mitigation, companies can now mitigate on other public landscapes, allowing areas to recover for future uses.

“The point we’re at with federal lands is critical,” GYC’s Rinaldi said. “This is allowing other partners and players who value public lands to be a part of conservation on public lands.”

Most federal public land in Greater Yellowstone is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, however, some critical lower-elevation areas are administered by BLM. These include winter ranges for large game and prairie habitats for species like the sage grouse, which face population threats due to habitat loss.
The Bureau of Land Management administers 245 million acres of public lands in the U.S. The map above shows a breakdown of public land managers in Greater Yellowstone. Map courtesy BLM
The Bureau of Land Management administers 245 million acres of public lands in the U.S. The map above shows a breakdown of public land managers in Greater Yellowstone. Map courtesy BLM
Idaho’s Sand Creek Desert, between Island Park and Rexburg, is a high-priority area for sage grouse and is also valuable for oil drilling and livestock grazing, Rinaldi explained. In the event of a wildfire—the National Interagency Fire Center predicts above-average fire potential in southeast Idaho this summer—conservation organizations could use a restoration lease to revive grouse habitat after a burn.

“There's lots of places [in Greater Yellowstone] where this could be applied in very positive ways on the landscape that would benefit multiple stakeholders,” Rinaldi said.
Despite overwhelming positive feedback during the 90-day public comment period —BLM received approximately 200,000 responses with roughly 90 percent support—the rule faces opposition on two fronts. 
The rule could also have general impacts on those living and recreating across the West, according to Carroll. He said it clarifies the regulatory process for designating recreational areas, like hiking and biking trail networks, as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. These recreation areas are important economic resources to western communities, similar to mining or oil extraction. A designation would protect them from future resource extraction, Carroll explained.

Despite overwhelming positive feedback during the 90-day public comment period during the drafting process—BLM received approximately 200,000 responses with roughly 90 percent support, according to Carroll—the rule faces opposition on two fronts.

“There are folks that were never going to get to a ‘yes’ on the Public Lands Rule, that are just ideologically opposed to having conservation be balanced with resource extraction,” Carroll said. “We've anticipated and already seen legislation being pushed, largely by Republicans, in both the House and the Senate to basically prohibit the BLM from implementing the Public Lands Rule.”

The most successful legislation so far has been the WEST Act of 2023, H.R. 3397, championed by Rep. John R. Curtis from Utah. The bill, which aims to force BLM to roll back the Public Lands Rule and prohibit similar future rules, has passed the House. Carroll doubts it will progress further under the current administration but predicts Republican lawmakers will try to use the Congressional Review Act to reverse the rule if the administration changes. Legal challenges are also expected, arguing that the administration lacks the authority to make such a ruling.

“All of that is sort of a bag of tricks that prevent us from having nice things like a sustainable environment,” Carroll said.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.
Julia Barton
About Julia Barton

Julia Barton is a freelance journalist and communications specialist based out of Bozeman. A Montana native, she earned a journalism degree from the University of Southern California and reports on the environment, outdoor recreation and the arts.
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