Who does John Hoeven think he represents?

Apr 10, 2023

By Aaron Weiss

The North Dakota senator is confused about a public lands plan that doesn’t affect his state

In the days after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a landmark proposal to put land conservation on a level playing field with other uses of public lands, reaction from members of Congress who are historically opposed to conservation has been generally quiet. However, a handful of senators have released statements that suggest they’re either unaware of or willfully ignoring how public lands are managed in their own states.

In particular, Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota is already pledging to block the use of funds to finalize or enforce the rule, falsely stating that one of the key proposals, allowing for conservation leases on BLM lands, would “conflict with the longstanding tradition of multiple use requirements established by Congress.”

The draft rule and BLM’s accompanying fact sheet make it clear that conservation leasing would not change or conflict with BLM’s multiple use mission — it would enhance it by creating a formal pathway for industry and non-governmental groups to pursue a practice known as compensatory mitigation, using land conservation and restoration to offset the environmental effects of extractive uses of the land such as drilling and mining.

Hoeven’s statement continues:

“North Dakota and other western states depend on access to federal lands. That’s why Congress has mandated that these taxpayer-owned lands be available for grazing, energy production, recreation and other uses,” said Hoeven. “The Biden administration’s proposed rule seeks to lock away more federal lands in direct conflict with the longstanding multiple use law. We’re working to stop this proposal and to ensure that North Dakotans and others still have access to these public lands.”

This statement, in addition to claiming that conservation conflicts with multiple use and recreation, suggests that Senator Hoeven believes he represents a Western state with a large portion of federal lands that would be affected by this rule. He is mistaken on both counts.

North Dakota is not a public lands state. Less than 4 percent of North Dakota is federally-managed land — 1.7 million acres out of 44.4 million in total. That puts North Dakota in a class with states like New Jersey, Missouri, and Maryland, where the federal government manages between 3 and 4 percent of the land. Many other Eastern states, including Vermont, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida, have far larger percentages of land managed by the federal government. By contrast, the federal government manages 36 percent of the land in Colorado, 45 percent of California, and 80 percent of Nevada.

Furthermore, of that small portion of national public land that exists in North Dakota, more than half of it (1.1 million acres) is managed by the U.S. Forest Service — an agency that’s part of the Agriculture Department, not the Interior Department, which houses the Bureau of Land Management. The next-largest portion of federal land, 489,000 acres, is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which means it is already managed with conservation as a primary goal.

The proposal that Hoeven is vowing to block would not apply to those lands at all. The proposal comes from the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that manages only 58,000 acres in his state — 0.1 percent of the land in North Dakota. Even the National Park Service manages more land in North Dakota than the BLM.

In other words, the proposal that Hoeven is so upset about would not meaningfully impact his state or his constituents. Nothing in the BLM proposal would apply to the Agriculture department, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, state lands, or private lands. It would apply to significant portions of land in Western states that are owned by American taxpayers and managed by the BLM. This includes Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

For residents, wildlife, and ecosystems in those states, the BLM proposal is long overdue. When Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) nearly 50 years ago, it explicitly instructed the Bureau of Land Management to prioritize the designation of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) as one of its core duties. But in the decades since, ACECs have largely been an afterthought as the agency instead focused its efforts on drilling, mining, and grazing. The new proposal would finally bring BLM’s land management practices in line with the text of FLPMA by making it clear that conservation is, in and of itself, a use of the land, to be considered alongside ranching and extractive uses.

The Bureau of Land Management is relying on input from the residents of Western states in particular to shape the public lands proposal. That’s why the agency has opened a 75-day public comment period and why groups ranging from the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to the National Wildlife Federation are praising the plan and its goal of bringing balance to BLM-managed public lands.

Before Senator Hoeven moves ahead with his crusade to block a plan that doesn’t affect his state, we hope he reads the comments that are being submitted right now, and takes a moment to understand what the BLM proposal truly means for America’s public lands — most of which lie west of North Dakota.

Featured image: Sen. John Hoeven, USDA