The Interior Department has released a new rule to put conservation on equal footing with uses like mining and grazing on more than 245 million acres of lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Unfortunately, the proposed rule is a solution in search of a problem: conservation is already implicitly recognized as a legitimate use of public lands.
The rule claims to “clarify that conservation is a ‘use’ within the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976’s multiple-use framework,” but in all likelihood, it claims to prioritize conservation above other uses. Multiple-use doctrine already recognizes “natural scenic, scientific, and historical values” as well as “wildlife and fish” as legitimate factors to consider in public lands management.
Reimagining multiple-use to include a misinterpretation of conservation is redundant with current law, but gives undue influence to preservationist organizations. A similar scheme, BLM Planning 2.0, was overturned under the Congressional Review Act for undermining both commercial and recreational activities.
The rule also outlines guidelines for conservation leasing, which could “establish carbon markets” using federal lands. It claims that conservation leases would “continue to be open for public use,” but “some public lands could be temporarily closed to public access” for the habitat restoration the department hopes to facilitate. This should concern all citizens who access public lands for hunting, fishing, and recreation, especially as conservation leases under the rule could be issued for ten years—or longer if extended.
The rule also fails to recognize that a plurality of federal public lands is closed for conservation purposes under current law. In my home state of Alaska, for instance, 64% of its land area is federally owned. Alaska’s acreage under BLM’s management, which would be subject to the rule’s new definition of conservation in the multiple-use doctrine, is nearly as much as the acreage managed by the entire state of Alaska. Almost 41% of federal lands managed by BLM, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and U.S. Forest Service combined are already federally protected from any activity.
The rule ostensibly helps “to support responsible development of critical minerals, energy and other resources,” but that statement rings hollow given the administration’s hostility to domestic energy production. The Willow Project, an oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, was approved in March 2023, but might have been canceled had President Biden not realized he “may very well lose in court” despite his preference to “disapprove of it across the board.” Yet shortly after the approval of Willow, the administration barred oil production on 13 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A) and withdrew a land exchange for a road from King Cove which would have allowed residents of the rural village better access to emergency medical care. So much for responsible development.
As Teddy Roosevelt, founder of the U.S. Forest Service said, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection.” That’s as true today as it was in 1910.
The 2023 Public Lands Rule tilts the scale in favor of protection at all costs—at the expense of all who wish to access public lands.