A sweeping new rule by the Bureau of Land Management aimed at conserving the federal land it manages on a landscape-wide basis has evoked a threat by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who says he is already preparing to challenge the regulations in court.

“Utah has a long track record of successful conservation and restoration of its public lands in tandem with local BLM offices,” Cox said in a statement released Thursday. “The added layers of red tape and federal bureaucracy embedded in the BLM’s Public Lands Rule create new roadblocks to conservation work. The health of Utah’s lands and wildlife will suffer as a result. This rule is contrary to the bedrock principle of ‘multiple-use’ in the BLM’s governing law, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. I look forward to working with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and his office to challenge this rule in federal court as soon as possible.”

In June 2023, Cox, along with governors from Montana, South Dakota, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming, sent a letter asking the BLM to withdraw its initial draft of the Public Lands Rule. Although the BLM made some positive changes based on the states’ feedback, they assert the final rule still contains “alarming” provisions that interfere with on-the-ground management.

Cox asserts that in an unprecedented move, the Public Lands Rule opens the door for special interest groups to lease public lands for “restoration and mitigation” while effectively locking out or excluding almost all other uses, including traditional activities such as livestock grazing, certain recreational uses or commercial guiding.

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In the letter of concern before the rule’s adoption, the governors said: “The proposed rule would then require the BLM to identify intact landscapes on public lands, and manage these lands to protect them ‘from activities that would permanently or significantly disrupt, impair, or degrade the structure or functionality of intact landscapes.’ While the specific activities that would harm these intact landscapes are not identified in the proposed rule, we are concerned that different forms of multiple use such as conifer removal projects, livestock grazing, renewable energy development, mining, oil and gas exploration, road improvements, dispersed camping, and many other activities could be deemed to ‘disrupt, impair, or degrade’ in different situations.”

It went on to stress this: “In fact, it is conceivable that almost all of the West’s BLM land could qualify as ‘intact landscapes’ under the BLM’s vague and overly broad definition.”

Cattle graze on public lands, some of which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, in Tooele County on Friday, April 19, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office said the rule directly impacts 22.8 million acres of land in Utah and, contrary to what the BLM asserts, it is not a positive step toward conservation.

“Despite the BLM’s assurances of enhancing conservation efforts, this rule will ironically hinder the ability of local BLM employees and other partners to effectively improve and restore Utah’s precious landscapes and watersheds,” it said in a statement.

What the BLM has to say

“As stewards of America’s public lands, the Interior Department takes seriously our role in helping bolster landscape resilience in the face of worsening climate impacts. Thursday’s final rule helps restore balance to our public lands as we continue using the best-available science to restore habitats, guide strategic and responsible development, and sustain our public lands for generations to come,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “Complemented with historic investments from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, we are implementing enduring changes that will benefit wildlife, communities and habitats.”

The rule does this:

  • Directs BLM to manage for landscape health. Successful public land management that delivers natural resources, wildlife habitat and clean water requires a thorough understanding of the health and condition of the landscape, especially as conditions shift on the ground due to climate change.
  • Provides a mechanism for restoring and protecting our public lands through restoration and mitigation leases. Restoration leases provide greater clarity for the BLM to work with appropriate partners to restore degraded lands. Mitigation leases will provide a clear and consistent mechanism for developers to offset their impacts by investing in land health elsewhere on public lands, like they currently can on state and private lands. The final rule clarifies who can obtain a restoration or mitigation lease, limiting potential leases to qualified individuals, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, tribal governments, conservation districts or state fish and wildlife agencies. Restoration and mitigation leases will not be issued if they would conflict with existing authorized uses.
  • Clarifies the designation and management of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. The final rule provides greater detail about how the BLM will continue to follow the direction in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to prioritize the designation and protection of these areas.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, also blasted the new rule.

“It is critical that Utah’s land remains under the stewardship of those who have tended it for generations,” Curtis said. “This rule from the Biden administration undermines the very people who rely on our federal lands for ranching, grazing, recreation, and beyond. Utahns know the true value of these lands, and this rule unjustly restricts access that should remain open to everyone. Instead, it favors wealthy individuals and environmental groups, allowing them to lock up land that belongs to all Utahns. I will work tirelessly to repeal this disastrous effort.”

The Utah Farm Bureau expressed its concern over the new rule as well, accusing the federal agency of placing inflexible, single-use priorities ahead of long-established multiple uses.

“This rule will alter the management of BLM lands in Utah and across the West to the detriment of livestock grazing and other long standing, economically beneficial uses of BLM lands and surrounding local communities,” it said in a prepared statement.

“Utah’s ranchers have a long history of caring for public lands and working to ensure the long-term health of the landscape. We look forward to continuing to use science-backed grazing practices to manage and enhance rangeland health — a goal the BLM should share.”

What environmental groups have to say

Marcia Argust, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. conservation project, said the rule represents a necessary and overdue overhaul.

“The Conservation and Landscape Health Rule is a much needed update to how the Bureau of Land Management manages important watersheds, wildlife habitat, and cultural resources,” she said. “The new rule will benefit ecosystem health and the communities that depend on these landscapes for their livelihood. The final rule does not abandon uses such as energy development, timber harvesting, or mining, but instead creates a more level playing field where conservation of our nation’s natural resources is actually in the game.”

Cattle graze on public lands, some of which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, in Tooele County on Friday, April 19, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership praised the new rule as a way to help preserve habitats for hunting and fishing.

“BLM public lands and habitats are under increased pressure from drought, severe wildfires, and invasive species, and the Conservation and Landscape Health Rule will help improve the agency’s ability to address those challenges for the benefit of hunters and anglers,” said Joel Webster, vice president of Western conservation at the organization.

Bobby McEnaney, director of conservation lands at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tackles an imbalance tucked into public lands management.

“From the very beginning, stewardship has been at the core of BLM’s mission, and this rule addresses BLM’s long-standing imbalance favoring extractive activities over its obligation to steward environmental resources, including the provision of clean water to millions in the West. In the face of climate change, this important step will help improve drought resiliency and further safeguard countless communities.”