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People walk on the public lands, Sept. 14, 2022, at the Upper Colorado River District outside Gypsum. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Members of the Republican-controlled U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources advanced a bill Wednesday seeking to block a new rule by the Bureau of Land Management that would put conservation on equal footing with energy development, livestock grazing and recreation. But the measure is unlikely to go anywhere given that Democrats control the U.S. Senate.

If the rule passes, it would elevate conservation during a time when officials say it is gravely needed amid mounting evidence of the effects of global warming on natural landscapes. The BLM says it will “allow managers to better respond to the growing need for oversight on public lands, waters and wildlife in the face of devastating wildfires, historic droughts, and severe storms across the West.” And it will “deepen the agency’s collaborative work with communities to support responsible development of critical minerals, energy and other resources.”

The rule is of particular interest in Colorado, where the BLM manages 8.3 million acres of public lands as well as 27 million acres of mineral estate with multiple programs generating nearly $9 billion in economic output and 41,000 jobs. In Colorado, oil and gas development on the BLM’s mineral estate generates $6.1 billion, compared with $1.4 billion from recreation. Coal mining on mineral estate contributes about $577 million to the state’s economy, while grazing rolls in at $74 million. 

But nationwide between 2012 and 2022, over 81 million acres of federal land have been torched by a whopping 681,511 fires, including four of Colorado’s most destructive fires. Colorado currently is experiencing higher than normal precipitation in most of the state. But with adequate rain comes ample vegetation, and already fire managers are starting to warn that once drier periods return, vegetation will dry out, creating increased potential for large fires. 

The BLM says its new rule will help combat fires and other climate-related degradation by pouring Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act funds into its lands, water and clean energy. It says it will use the funds to “identify and prioritize lands and waters that require habitat restoration work, such as removing invasive species or restoring streambanks.” And it says the proposed rule will help BLM protect and restore lands and habitat by applying rangeland health standards and guidelines, typically used to rate and restore grazing allotments during critical growth periods, to all BLM-managed lands. 

BLM lands near Gypsum, Sept. 14, 2022. The BLM has proposed a rule that would elevate conservation on public lands in the West. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

But the rule is already drawing ire from the House Natural Resources Committee, which held a hearing June 15 to discuss a bill that would delay BLM from taking it to the next step. 

Some committee members, mostly from Western states, contend the rule “is a seismic shift in public land management that will fundamentally upend the agency’s multiple use mandate.” They believe the rule threatens a “Western way of life” embodied in thousands of rural economies that depend on access to BLM lands for energy, mineral development, recreation, grazing, timber production and recreation. And they say the Biden administration is using the rule “to further its preservationist agenda” to lock up more lands and “advance radical goals” like the administration’s 30×30 executive order establishing a first-of-its-kind national goal of conserving 30% of U.S. lands and oceans by 2030.

The four-hour hearing saw most committee members present agreeing the rule should be withdrawn. Many complained rural communities were left out of the BLM’s public information sessions. Some members said the rule could devastate rural economies, “when ranchers, industries and sportsmen are already conservation-minded,” as Republican Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said in his testimony before the committee. Lawmakers said the rule could tie the hands of states that want to make public lands conservation decisions without interference from the federal government. 

Of particular interest to the committee is the rule’s introduction of conservation leases, which the BLM wants to use in its protection and resilience strategy. These could allow third parties to directly support restoration efforts to build and maintain the resilience of public lands regardless of where the parties live. 

Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who grew up ranching and farming in her home state, testified before the committee. She said the stipulation would threaten “not just those people working the land, but our economy, energy dependence and food supply to America” by giving “third parties, not even necessarily people in our own country, access and authority over these lands.” 

But U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman of California, one of the few Democrats in the room, chided the committee for pushing “conspiracy theories” about the rule. “I hate to interrupt this hyperpartisan performance masquerading as a legislative hearing,” he said, “but … I would like anyone who happens to be watching this from home to know that not every Western state is hyped up on anti-government conspiracy politics. In fact, California opposes HR 3397 and thinks the BLM’s public lands rule is a good idea.”

The Nature Conservancy and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers support the rule, with TNC praising the bureau for using its “ample authority” to protect habitat, and BHA thanking BLM and the Department of the Interior for emphasizing “practical, results-oriented management and a commitment to soliciting and heeding input from the public.”

The whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says it questions the BLM’s ability to apply land health standards on all lands, not just grazing lands, particularly when “approximately 1/3 of the grazing lands, nearly 41 million acres, are unassessed,” it says.   

Chandra Rosenthal, PEER’s Rocky Mountain director, said BLM’s data shows grazing allotments make up 72% of the land it identifies as failing and in need of restoration, “yet BLM says grazing is absolutely compatible with conservation and could be a use on a conservation lease.” 

The group also wonders if BLM will “actually manage the lands” or “just maintain the status quo.” 

And members of the ranching community have criticized the BLM’s communication about the rule.  

“Ranchers have a reasonable expectation of transparency and predictability with dealing with the BLM, and this proposed rule falls short on both accounts,” Kaitlynn Glover, an official with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Public Lands Council, said. “The covert manner in which the rule was developed and announced has left permittees feeling like the rule is either a capitulation to the extremist environmental groups who want to eradicate grazing from the landscape, or a concerted effort to develop rules that preclude ranchers’ input.” 

Kristy Wallner, a rangeland conservationist for the Bureau of Land Management, leads a talk about fencing technology, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, in the public lands of the Upper Colorado River District outside Gypsum. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

But Bailey Brennan, the National Wildlife Federation’s public attorney, says, “BLM has demonstrated a clear interest in hearing from all members of the public, including the ranching community. The agency provided a 75-day comment period — which is long for a procedural rule such as this — and hosted five public meetings, in person and virtual.”

In comparison, the Trump administration in 2021 offered a 60-day comment period for its revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act, during a roll back of 100 rules related to protecting clean air and water amid the threat of human-caused climate change. 

“Moreover, any decisions about land use changes would be made through the resource management planning process, which is subject to NEPA review and involves extensive public engagement,” Brennan says. 

It was clear most of the Republican committee members gathered at the hearing wanted more transparency. 

Near the end of the hearing, Nada Wolff Culver, the BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs, fielded questions from some of the members. She reiterated the BLM’s position that the rule has “a very specific line of reasoning” and that the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 directs the BLM to manage multiple uses, including grazing, mining, hunting, fishing and recreation. The new rule simply adds conservation to this list. 

A prominent voice against the bill is Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert. The Garfield County Republican pushed Culver to answer why BLM held its Colorado-based in-person informational meeting “in Denver, away from where most rural stakeholders actually live.” 

“We held three meetings where we felt a lot of people would attend (in Denver, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Reno, Nevada),” Culver responded. 

“Will this rule lock up more land and prevent other multiple use activities under the guise of conservation?” Boebert asked.  

“No, it will not,” Culver said. 

“Is this an attempt to further the administration’s 30×30 agenda and potentially go into the 50/50 agenda we hear so much of?” asked Boebert, referencing the term used by some to explain the White House’s plan to put the United States on a path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by 2050.

Culver maintained what the BLM has said all along, that the rule would further the agency’s mission under FLPMA.  

Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn, who also is on the committee, opposes the rule, while Colorado Democratic senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, along with Rep. Joe Neguse, who is on the House committee, support it. Lamborn attended the hearing while Neguse did not.

In a news release after the hearing, the BLM answered a prior request by the committee to extend the public comment period on the proposal, moving it from 75 days to 90. It now ends July 5.

Correction: This story was updated June 27 at 6:42 a.m. to clarify Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn attended the June 15 House Committee on Natural Resources hearing regarding the BLM’s proposed conservation rule.

Tracy Ross is The Colorado Sun's rural economic development reporter. She also covers the outdoors, books and culture. She came to The Sun after a 20-year career covering the same beats for magazines like Outside, Backpacker, Bicycling and Skiing. Drop her a line with story tips and ideas at