Biden wants to allow conservationists to lease public land

The Biden administration wants to put the conservation of many government-owned lands on the same footing oil drilling, livestock grazing and other interests, according to a senior administration official who defended the idea against criticism that it would disrupt the industry.

The proposal allows conservationists etc. for rent federally owned land to restore it, like the way oil companies buy leases to drill and ranchers pay to graze cattle. Companies can also buy conservation leases, such as oil drillers who want to offset damage to public lands by restoring acreage elsewhere.

Tracy Stone-Manning, director of the Bureau of Land Management, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the proposed changes will address increasing pressure from climate change and development. While the bureau has previously issued leases for conservation in limited cases, it does not yet have a dedicated program for it, he said.

“It makes conservation consistent among the many uses we manage,” Stone-Manning said. “There are rules on how we do solar development. There are rules on how we do oil and gas. There are no rules on how we provide the parts of (federal law) that say, ‘Management for of fish and wildlife habitat, management for clean water.’

The pending rule would also promote the establishment of additional areas of “critical environmental concern” because of their historical or cultural significance, or their importance for wildlife conservation. More than 1,000 such sites covering about 33,000 square miles (85,000 square kilometers) have previously been designated.

In comparison, about 242,00 square miles of bureau land is open to livestock grazing.

But more than a century after the US, began selling oil and gas leases, the idea of ​​conservation has sparked a debate on the best use of the vast property owned by the government, especially in the West.

Opponents including Republican lawmakers blasted it as a backdoor method to exclude mining, energy development and agriculture from BLM-controlled land.

The bureau has a history of industry-friendly policies for the 380,000 square miles (990,000 square kilometers) it manages, an area twice the size of California. It also controls publicly owned underground minerals, including oil, coal and lithium for renewable energy over 1 million square miles.

Those properties put the 10,000-person agency at the center of arguments over how much development should be allowed.

On Monday night, senior agency officials are scheduled to host the first virtual public meeting about the conservation proposal. Another virtual event is scheduled for June 5 and public meetings are planned for May 25 in Denver; May 30 in Reno, Nevada; and June 1 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

US Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who tried to block Stone-Manning’s 2021 Senate confirmationsays the proposed rule is illegal.

Earlier this month he rebuked Interior Secretary Deb Haaland about it during an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, saying she was “giving radicals a new tool to shut down the public.”

“The secretary wants to use the non-use,” said Barrasso, the ranking Republican on the committee. “He is … turning federal law on its head.”

Stone-Manning said critics are misreading the rule, and that conservation leases don’t take away existing ones. Once grazing is permitted on a parcel, it can continue. And people can still hunt on the rental property or use it for recreation, he said.

Former President Donald Trump tried to boost fossil fuel development on bureau lands, but President Joe Biden suspended new oil and gas leasing when he took office. Biden later revived the deals to gain the support of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin climate legislation last year.

Biden remains under intense pressure from Manchin and many Republicans to allow more drilling. Such companies currently hold leases on about 37,500 square miles of bureau land.

Environmentalists welcomed the idea of ​​conservation leases, describing the proposal as long overdue.

Joel Webster with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of conservation groups and hunting and fishing organizations, said the administration’s plan would create a process to ensure that landscapes are considered for conservation without ‘y forcing restrictions.

He cautioned, however, that administration officials must ensure that the final rule does not have unintended consequences.

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