U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Montana, as questions of a witness at a House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on a proposed rule from the Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. (Screenshot via U.S. House of Representatives)
Congressman Matt Rosendale continued to deride the Department of Interior and its efforts to better conserve public lands and protect natural resources in a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday a day before a public hearing on a newly proposed rule on conservation and landscape health.
“It’s clear that [the Bureau of Land Management] has turned into a climate activist organization under this administration. I’m glad we’re holding this hearing to uncover the unlawful and unprecedented actions taken by the bureau,” Rosendale said in Wednesday’s House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing.
Rosendale, the Montana Republican who in recent weeks has proposed major cuts to federal land acquisition and conservation efforts, and Republicans on the committee held a sort of hearing of their own Wednesday on the BLM’s Conservation and Landscape Health proposed rule. Democrats said the heads of the Interior Department and BLM were not invited.
The Republicans said they were unhappy with a 75-day public comment period for the rule, that it shuts out local and state governments, and that the five public meetings on it are being held either virtually or in areas with larger populations: Denver, Albuquerque, N.M., and Reno, Nev.
“The proposed Conservation and Landscape Health rule is just another example of this administration trying to take authority vested in Congress and place it with the administration’s extremist agencies,” Rosendale added. “This administration is threatening Montanans’ access to public lands to advance their own environmentalist agenda.”
The rule, which was proposed in late March, would allow the BLM to apply land health standards to BLM-managed lands, roughly 8 million acres in Montana, add conservation as a use under the multi-use mission of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and revise regulations so the BLM prioritizes protecting Areas of Critical Environmental Concern – which are typically areas of significant historical or cultural value or which have important fish, wildlife or other natural resources.
When the department released the proposed rule, it said adding conservation as an allowable use, and allowing for conservation leases, would protect public lands for conservation and recreational purposes while also working with resource-extracting companies, developers and livestock growers.
The department said the rule is needed because climate change is causing more drought, wildlife loss, wildfires and invasive species while more people are using land for recreation and development — all threatening some of the more sensitive public lands.
“As pressure on our public lands continues to grow, the proposed Public Lands Rule provides a path for the BLM to better focus on the health of the landscape, ensuring that our decisions leave our public lands as good or better off than we found them,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in March.
If the rule is adopted in its current form, land managers would identify pieces of land and water needed for habitat restoration, and allow for conservation leases on public land for up to 10 years to try to rehabilitate parcels for various purposes.
Rosendale and other Republicans on the subcommittee, including chair Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., argue that Congress and not the BLM has the authority to make changes to the multi-use and sustained yield mandate that the body gave the bureau with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), though the Interior secretary is required “to establish comprehensive rules and regulations after considering the views of the general public” under the act.
The congressman from eastern Montana also again said he hoped the department would hold a meeting in Montana, as the closest in-person meeting is set for Thursday in Denver, which he said was “far removed” from who he claims are the biggest stakeholders under the proposed rule change.
“Rule cannot change law. The law is the law,” he said.
But Stephanie Garcia Richard, the New Mexico commissioner of public lands who was brought in as a witness, overall praised the proposed rule, though she said she would also like to see states and county governments included in the decision-making process.
She said the proposed rule mirrors how New Mexico operates in terms of its public lands use, with tribal representatives having a major say in conservation and multi-use land bringing in billions of dollars to the government through both outdoors and cultural tourism and oil and gas development.
“This rule isn’t about taking public lands away. It’s about explicitly allowing another type of use, which can often occur alongside other uses,” she told the subcommittee.
Among the other witnesses to provide testimony at the hearing was Prairie County Commissioner Todd Devlin, who said that the conservation leases would force the checkerboard areas of eastern Montana where ranchers graze their livestock to seek conservation easements and that the proposed rule would be “devastating” for those ranchers.
Devlin said he believed the BLM was essentially creating “de facto wilderness areas” that he thinks would bar any conservation-leased land from any other types of uses.
Nevada Department of Agriculture Director JJ Goicoechea also suggested to Rosendale the ranchers would go out of business, as would other local businesses like grocery stores and schools, which he claimed would lead to more poverty and suicide.
The proposed rule says the BLM intends to apply the National Environmental Policy Act at a later date either in a collective or case-by-case basis because the current effects could be “too broad, speculative, or conjectural to lend themselves to meaningful analysis.”
But several of the Republicans and the witnesses they called said the proposed rule should have already undergone a NEPA analysis because of the broad-ranging economic effects they say the rule would create.
Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., the subcommittee’s ranking member, said she felt it was interesting that the same Republican representatives were now asking for a NEPA analysis after they have opposed it in so many other instances.
“It’s ironic that we’re having this conversation in this committee because I’ve sat here for the last several months, listening to my colleagues talk about why we need to gut NEPA and expedite permitting, and not hear from communities,” she said. “And right now, they’re at the negotiating table with the president trying to gut NEPA across Pennsylvania Avenue, so I think it’s a little bit of a mixed message here.”
Last year, several Democratic state representatives from Montana and local government officials signed on to a letter to the Interior Department calling on it to protect more public lands in the West in the face of climate change.
The organization The Mountain Pact, which helped facilitate the letter and is leading a push in favor of the rule because it says the BLM and Interior Department has been too focused on allowing energy and resource extraction on public lands over the past several decades, sent another letter to BLM Colorado State Director Doug Vilsack urging more conservation, which was signed by 80 Colorado officials.
Several environmental law professors also signed a statement saying the proposed rule was in line with the BLM’s ability to create rule and regulations under the FLPMA.
Wednesday, several conservation, wilderness, and hunting and fishing groups also held a news conference advocating for the proposed rule and saying what most Republicans said at the subcommittee hearing flew in the face of public support for better public lands conservation.
They said it was false that ranchers would get kicked off lands, that oil and gas production would be stopped, or that members of the public would be locked out of lands.
“Conservation can go hand-in-hand with extraction and development,” said Danielle Murray, the senior policy and legal director with the Colorado-based Conservation Lands Foundation. “Unfortunately, the misconceptions and I think lies about this rule appear to be an attempt by the industry to continue to monopolize and control management, and this actually locks the public out of meaningful dialogue during planning.”
The group said that they feel the more than 64,000 comments already submitted about the rule shows the interest conservationists have in the BLM’s move and that it reaffirms the public has ample chance to participate in what they feel is a move a long time coming.
“We’re extremely excited about it because it does what folks have been trying to accomplish for the last 40 years, which is essentially getting them to finally say, ‘Hey, we’re going to live up to our mission as identified in FLPMA and start making conservation more of a priority for the agency across the board,” said Michael Carroll, the BLM Campaign Director at The Wilderness Society.
Thursday’s meeting in Denver is the second of five public meetings on the proposed rule. The others will be in Albuquerque on May 30, Reno on June 1, and a virtual meeting on June 5. For more information, click here. To read the proposed rule and comment in the Federal Register, click here.
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