How you can help craft a strong final rule that protects wildlife and restores balance

June 12, 2023

Earlier this Spring, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed regulations which, once final, could have broad implications on the management of our public lands. But we must emphasize the word “could.” The agency’s promised changes must do enough to change the culture and decisions of an agency that has long failed to conserve the lands it manages.

The BLM’s proposed regulatory changes, together called the “Public Lands Rule,” would:

  • Make clear that conservation is a “use” within BLM’s multiple-use mission;
  • Apply land health standards, currently applicable (but often not enforced) to grazing allotments, to all BLM-managed public lands;
  • Strengthen regulations for designating and protecting Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACECs; and
  • Establish a framework for “conservation leases.”

In a way, it’s a shame we even need these new rules. The BLM manages public lands under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, a law that uses the principle of “multiple use and sustained yield.” FLPMA already states that conservation is just as valid a “use” of our public lands as any type of resource development.

But that hasn’t stopped the agency from putting destructive extractive uses above sustainability. From oil and gas drilling to cattle grazing to logging to off-road vehicle recreation, the agency has prioritized the exploitation of our public lands over clean air and water, native plants and wildlife, and healthy ecosystems. These new changes seek to restore a balance we should have had this entire time.

That said, these changes are undeniably a step in the right direction. The question will be whether the final rules will do enough to protect public lands now and into the future, especially as the intertwined climate and biodiversity crises play out in real time.

We are pushing the agency to make the rules stronger in key ways that intersect with our work at WildEarth Guardians. And you can help by submitting comments here in favor of the Public Lands Rule but with additions to make sure the changes do enough to stem the many and growing threats to public lands. You can include the recommendations below in your comments. 

Protections for Mature and Old Growth Forests

Older forests and trees store vast amounts of carbon and serve a crucial role as part of a broad climate crisis solution. These trees and stands store the vast majority of the aboveground carbon in a forest. Moreover, older forests and trees are far more adaptable to the impacts of climate change, especially compared to industrial tree plantations. 

These complex ecosystems also provide vital and unique habitats for a range of imperiled species and serve a vital role in addressing declining fish and wildlife populations. Intact forested watersheds produce clean water vital for aquatic life in the forest and downstream communities that rely on them for their drinking water supplies. Protecting mature and old forests is essential to effectively address the biodiversity crisis. 

Recommendation: As part of this rulemaking, BLM should put an end to logging of mature and old growth forests and trees on federal land. And until such a rule is in place, the BLM must place a moratorium on all logging of mature and old growth trees. 

Areas of Critical Environmental Concern

Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACECs, are the primary tool BLM should use to protect important resources on the lands it manages. FLPMA instructs that BLM prioritize the designation ACECs during land use planning to provide special management attention for “important historic, cultural, or scenic values, fish and wildlife resources or other natural systems or processes.” But more often than not, the agency either fails to identify these important resources or claims they need no special protection.

Greater sage-grouse provide an example. The iconic dancing bird of the sagebrush steppe has declined precipitously over the last half century–by 80% since 1965, and by 40% in just the last two decades. The main problem is habitat. The U.S. Geological Survey recently reported that the West’s remaining healthy sagebrush steppe ecosystem, largely managed by the BLM, is disappearing at a rate of 1.3 million acres every year. That’s an area the size of Grand Canyon National Park lost annually.

In 2015, the BLM amended land use plans across Greater sage-grouse range to add protections for the species and its habitat. But the agency failed to designate any ACECs as part of the process, despite the clear need for special management to protect the bird. Now, faced with continued population and habitat declines, the agency is back at the drawing board. 

As part of the renewed planning process, we’ve proposed that BLM designate a Sagebrush Sea Reserve ACEC network to protect the best remaining grouse habitat. And we need a strong Public Lands Rule that, in addition to current proposals, ensures the BLM makes full use of ACECs as part of this and other planning processes.

Recommendation: The final rule should make it mandatory, rather than discretionary, that a protective ACEC be designated where irreplaceable historic, cultural, or scenic values, or fish and wildlife resources are found. 

Alternatively, once the agency identifies values worthy of ACEC protections, the rule should provide an express presumption that special management attention will be necessary to protect those values. The agency must affirmatively show how and why existing protections obviate the need for ACEC designation.

Recommendation: The final rule should explicitly allow the use of ACECs to preserve areas of exemplary healthy ecological function. These protected areas, managed to preserve vital habitats and natural processes, will provide important baselines for measuring land health and evaluating restoration efforts. 

Recommendation: The final rule should make clear, as the BLM’s ACEC Handbook does, that species habitat is a protectable resource. Moreover, the rule should provide for the protection of wildlife connectivity corridors, restorable habitat, and areas of previously-unoccupied habitat that can serve as climate refugia as conditions change.

Carnivore Coexistence

Meeting the proposed rule’s objectives to conserve habitat, better manage wildlife, and ensure ecosystem resilience will require widespread use of non-lethal conflict reduction measures. Native carnivores like wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and bears play an essential role in maintaining the natural function and balance of ecosystems. Protecting their populations–especially from negative livestock interactions, a main source of conflict and driver of lethal carnivore “removal”–will ensure carnivores fulfill their role in creating and maintaining healthy ecosystems on BLM lands.

The BLM should take this opportunity to lead the paradigm shift from killing native wildlife at the behest of the livestock industry to an ethic of coexistence through non-lethal conflict reduction practices.

Recommendation: The final rule should establish a framework under proposed section 6102.5 by which BLM can incorporate situationally and temporally appropriate coexistence measures into grazing permitting, allotment management, and land use planning processes.

Special interest groups are flooding the BLM with comments opposing the rulemaking. You can fight back. Write a letter to the agency now, in support of a strong final Public Lands Rule. Again, you can submit your own comments here by June 20.

Greater sage-grouse in Wyoming, photo credit: BLM

About the Author

Chris Krupp | Public Lands Attorney, WildEarth Guardians

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