A new proposal by the Bureau of Land Management, which manages 245 million acres of land in mostly Western states, is earning wide support from environmental groups but condemnation and concern from not only the West’s elected leaders, but also representatives from the oil and gas industry, mining, ranching and even some recreation interests.

Tourism accounted for $10.5 billion in direct visitor spending in Utah in 2021 and is a critical economic driver for many rural communities across the state that share a unique nexus with the public lands’ playground they provide, said Natalie Randall, executive director of the Utah Tourism Industry Association.

While Randall said her association has not taken a direct position on the BLM’s proposed “Conservation and Landscape Health” rule, there are a lot of questions it poses. The rule proposes to put conservation as a use of public lands available for leasing, which critics say upends decades of law.

She said there is concern about what “unintentional, unnecessary constraints,” may result regarding public access if the rule is adopted.

Randall wondered aloud if conservation leases were granted how BLM would define “casual” use of the land, which would possibly bar commercial guides and outfitters, an integral avenue to get visitors into the great outdoors with seasoned professionals.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and several other Western governors penned a letter to the Biden administration in opposition to the rule, asking it be pulled because it is unnecessary, a breach of BLM’s own management mandate for multiple use particularly because so much federal land is already protected via monuments or other special designations such as Wilderness areas.

New rule would allow for conservation leases on public land, but some western politicians, including Cox, are skeptical

“Of the remaining BLM lands still open to multiple use, there is still a very high bar set before any kind of surface disturbing activities can be authorized, and many barriers to development in existing BLM resource management plans,” Cox and the other governors wrote. “In short, the proposed rule seems to be a solution in search of a problem when so much BLM land in the western United States is already under strict federal protection.”

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, has proposed legislation to nullify the rule, and industry is already practicing its punches for a potential legal fight, with a spokesman for the American Exploration and Production Council saying Tuesday during the panel that courts are starting to make clear federal agencies should not usurp their authority.

“You know, I think looking at the Supreme Court, and looking at its ruling on West Virginia vs. EPA, I think that the court is really going to take a hard look at making sure that agencies are staying within their clearly expressed statutory authorities when promulgating rules,” said Troy Lyons, vice president of governmental affairs for the council. “So given where we are in this era of that, I would expect there to be some type of challenges to it.”

Oil and gas fueling energy, controversy

Lyons said the Biden administration has made clear since its fledgling weeks in control of the United States that domestic gas and oil development is anathema to the country’s future, pressing pause on any federal onshore or offshore leases in a move later derailed in federal court.

'Keep It in the Ground' event targets Utah oil and gas leasing

To continue on a similar path but in a different way will result in consequences that will be far reaching, he warned.

“In 2021, operators on onshore federal and tribal lands in the United States produced 462 million barrels of oil and 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If oil and gas produced on federal onshore federal lands were a country, it would be the 17th largest producer in the world of oil and the 11th largest producer of natural gas in the world.”

He said the revenue adds up.

“In 2022 onshore federal lands production yielded about $8.6 billion dollars in total federal revenue, and $3.8 billion dispersed to local and state governments. This accounted for nearly $90 million in 2022 for Utah.”

Amid calls to combat climate change and decrease carbon emissions, the extraction industry has not only been condemned by top Washington officials, but a consortium of environmental organizations that say a fossil-fueled economy needs to be a thing of the past and other public land uses prioritized — or at least on a level playing field.

“The proposed rule would give the Bureau of Land Management the tools it needs for responsible stewardship of America’s public lands in the 21st century. Lands across the West are under increasing pressure from wildfires, drought, and development,” said Center for Western Priorities’ Deputy Director Aaron Weiss.

“At the same time, our public lands will be central to America’s transition to a clean energy economy. By elevating the best available science and giving land managers on the ground more flexibility, the rule would ensure America’s public lands remain healthy for years to come.”

But Jake Garfield, an assistant attorney general representing Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, said the Bureau of Land Management already controls 22.8 million acres of land in Utah and of that, 10.1 million acres of that is under a strict designation that generally precludes industry activity.

During the panel presentation, he showed a map with those strict designations colored in purple and the rest in yellow.

“What we’re seeing with this rule is really an attempt to expand the purple area on this map. This rule appears to us to be a way for the BLM to take more of yellow land, more of this land that is open for development of natural resources and close that off to that development.”

Garfield added, “Needless to say, we strongly oppose this rule as currently drafted.”

The ‘intact’ landscape dilemma

BLM’s new proposal would allow it to consider large swaths of land that represent “intact” landscapes of a special nature that preserve ecological balance for designation for leasing.

Utah’s vast amount of natural resources and wide-open spaces necessarily lead to intact landscapes, Garfield and Randall said, and questioned how those impacts would play out in the future should the rule become effective.

Cox and the other governors mentioned the concern in their letter.

“The proposed rule’s proposed restrictions on “intact landscapes” could ultimately punish westerners for being good stewards of the land,” it said.

Rikki Hrenko-Browning, president of the Utah Petroleum Association which hosted the panel, echoed that sentiment.

“The reason that Utah has such large areas of intact landscapes is because our multiple use has been done so responsibly. It’s a little bit of a ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ issue here of, really, you know, hurting those individuals who have been responsible for creating those intact landscapes in the first place,” she said. “So, obviously, we have a lot of concerns with this rule.”

Clarification: A previous version of this story included a direct quote indicating there is concern among some recreational groups, including REI and the Outdoor Industry Association, over the proposed BLM rule. To clarify, those groups have indicated they support for the proposal.