Rhetoric vs. reality: House hearing on the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed Public Lands Rule

Jun 16, 2023

By Aaron Weiss

In a hearing Thursday morning, the House Natural Resources Committee heard testimony about the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed Public Lands Rule that would allow land managers to treat conservation as one of the multiple uses of BLM land.

The four-hour long hearing was filled with bombastic predictions of doom from some members of the committee and witnesses, including South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who unleashed a torrent of conspiracy theories while making it clear she didn’t understand the proposal itself or even which lands in her state it would apply to.

In response, BLM Deputy Director for Policy Nada Wolff Culver calmly took question after question and provided clear answers straight from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the text of the proposed rule.

Here are a few of the highlights and lowlights from the hearing.

Rhetoric: The rule allows BLM to establish de facto national monuments or wilderness areas.

Doug LaMalfa

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (California): “Do we pretty much have a de facto national monument or wilderness area by a designation?”

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem: “It gives them the authority to. This proposed rule absolutely allows them to look at large landscapes and shut the public out of them, from accessing it, from utilizing it, from no longer being able to hunt and fish, from engaging in outdoor recreation, from mining, from grazing.”

Reality: Conservation leases would not interfere with existing rights or recreational use of lands.

According to the BLM, conservation leases would “be consistent with, and not override, valid existing rights,” and would “require land management to protect the goals of the leases but not interfere with casual use or other consistent uses.”

These valid existing rights include grazing, mining, and drilling, while casual use includes most forms of outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing. In fact, the rule gives grazing allottees, extractive industries, and recreationists a new optional opportunity to engage in responsible stewardship by proposing conservation leases to offset their impacts and restore lands.

Rhetoric: The rule lets BLM avoid environmental reviews.

Kristi Noem

Noem: “[The rule] also allows BLM to go around the NEPA process.”

Reality: The proposed rule doesn’t touch NEPA at all. Environmental reviews would still be required for all land use planning, just as they are today.

“The proposed Public Lands Rule would not change that or create new laws; it is consistent with the current laws that apply to BLM’s management of public lands,” according to the BLM.

Rhetoric: The rule takes authority from local BLM offices.

Noem: “What’s interesting to me is watching how they allow bureaucrats in DC to make these decisions under this proposed rule, and taking that authority away from local BLM offices.”

Reality: The rule gives local land managers more tools to do their job.

According to the BLM, “The proposed rule would also help facilitate responsible development by providing specific tools to authorize appropriately tailored and durable compensatory mitigation. The conservation leasing tool proposed in the rule responds, in part, to comments from state and industry partners on the need for a reliable path to pursue compensatory mitigation on public lands to facilitate development projects.”

Also according to the BLM, “A conservation lease is a land use authorization that the BLM can issue to an external entity to help achieve restoration or mitigation outcomes on public lands. The proposed rule treats it as a tool, not a requirement. The conservation lease would be proposed by a third-party and the BLM has discretion to decide whether and how a lease would be an appropriate tool to achieve restoration or mitigation.”

Nada Wolff Culver

Nada Wolff Culver, BLM Deputy Director of Policy and Programs: “I want to just re-emphasize that the rule sets out a framework, it doesn’t make any decisions. Any on the ground decisions will be made by local land managers. I would encourage everyone to search the word local in the rule, if you’re looking at it online. We really emphasize that that process will not change.”

Ironically, the solar industry has raised the exact opposite objection to Noem’s, worrying that the proposed rule would delegate too many decisions to local field offices.

Rhetoric: The rule would drastically affect South Dakota’s economy.

Pete Stauber

Rep. Peter Stauber (Minnesota): “As you mentioned in your testimony, entire facets of your economy are built both figuratively and literally on our precious public lands. If this rule is finalized and the BLM uses this tool to weaponize federal lands, what effect will it have on your state’s economy?”

Noem: “It’ll be dramatic.”

Reality: For better or worse, this rule will have almost no effect in South Dakota.

BLM manages less than 1% of the land in South Dakota — around 300,000 acres out of a total of 49.4 million acres.

Rhetoric: This rule will help BLM manage lands in a balanced way.

Melanie Stansbury

Rep. Melanie Stansbury (New Mexico): “Unlike what we’re hearing in this hearing this morning, the rule will actually help us manage our lands in a more balanced way. It’s not going to cut off development, it’s not going to cut off our ranchers from grazing, it’s not going to cut off oil and gas, it’s not going to cut off mining, it’s going to make sure we are adequately balancing the needs of conservation, protecting our cultural landscapes and ensuring that we are also balancing that with resource management.”

Reality: Yes it will.

According to the BLM, “the proposal does not change the BLM’s multiple use mission — indeed, it will ensure the BLM’s ability to deliver it in the future. Energy development, mining, grazing, timber, outdoor recreation, and other uses will continue. The proposal does not undermine any existing valid rights or require the use of conservation leasing. The proposal does not impede development on public lands. It will help facilitate responsible development through informed planning that deconflicts uses, while providing a path for developers to pursue compensatory mitigation. The proposal does not change the existing land management planning process; rather, it will create more opportunity and tools for local communities to shape the management of their public lands.”

Rhetoric: The rule will affect the management of national forests.

Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon

Res. Cmmsr. Jenniffer González-Colon (Puerto Rico): “You were saying in your testimony in your statement, that the proposal will also impact in a negative way public safety in your state. Can you elaborate on that?”

Noem: “Well, it’s going to risk people’s lives because it will not allow us to manage the Black Hills National Forest and Forest Service lands throughout that area in a way that protects our communities and homes that are there.”

Reality: The rule only applies to BLM-managed lands. National forests are managed by the Forest Service.

Black Hills National Forest isn’t managed by the BLM. The U.S. Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture, not the Interior department, and the proposed rule wouldn’t apply to national forests at all.

Rhetoric: The rule would prevent grazing on lands where ranchers currently hold a permit.

Lauren Boebert

Rep. Lauren Boebert (Colorado): “Just this week I heard from one of my constituents who is a farmer and rancher in Mesa county that this unconstitutional rule could prevent her livestock from grazing on BLM land where they currently graze and where she has an active permit. Ranchers and farmers across the West still don’t have clear answers as to what the impact of this rule will be on their current grazing leases…. Will this rule lock up more land and prevent other multiple-use activities under the guise of conservation?”

Reality: The rule does not override any existing uses, including grazing.

Wolff Culver: “No it will not, Congresswoman.”

According to the BLM, the rule will “be consistent with, and not override, valid existing rights.”

Also according to the BLM, the rule “provides opportunities for permittees to enter into a conservation lease to improve land health,” and “conservation leases would generally be a compatible use with grazing allotments meeting land health standards.”

Wolff Culver: “In terms of day-to-day decisions on managing grazing, that will not change. That will continue to be managed at the local level. The rule itself, again, doesn’t change the Taylor Grazing Act, it doesn’t affect any existing authorizations in the context of conservation leasing.”

Rhetoric: The public lands rule doesn’t define conservation.

Rep. Cliff Bentz (Oregon): “The way I read it, it suggests that you’re now going to take conservation — it’s never defined in here so I’m not sure what it is.”

Reality: Conservation is clearly defined in the proposed rule.

Wolff Culver: “In the rule we define conservation as maintaining resilient functioning ecosystems by protecting or restoring natural habitats and ecological functions.”

Specifically, Wolff Culver pointed Rep. Bentz to section 6101.4 of the proposed rule, which has a detailed definition of conservation.

Rhetoric: Conservation is or isn’t part of FLPMA’s multiple use mandate.

Jared Huffman

Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma: “Congress didn’t define conservation as a multiple use.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (California): “Is it correct that congressional intent for the FLPMA is to include conservation as part of BLM’s multiple use mandate?”

Reality: Congress explicitly tasked the BLM with preserving and protecting public lands in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

Wolff Culver: “Absolutely it is. The definition of multiple use is very clear. It includes, for example, natural, scenic, scientific, and historical values. Those are certainly aspects of conservation, as are management of habitat. I think the quote that I’ve read a few times lately comes from former governor of Idaho, Mr. Andrus, who was the secretary of the Interior when FLPMA passed in 1976. And he talked about the importance of public lands to all Americans. And said in response to the passage of FLPMA, ‘Conservation is no longer a pious ideal, it is an element of our survival.’”

According to the BLM, “FLPMA expressly states that public lands should be managed to protect environmental and water resources, fish and wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation, among other values, all of which benefit from the conservation of intact habitat and the restoration of degraded lands. FLPMA also requires the BLM to prevent unnecessary or undue degradation; the proposed rule includes additional tools to help meet this congressional mandate.”

Rhetoric: “Oil and gas companies are always reclaiming and restoring the land.”

Kathleen Sgamma

Sgamma: “We’re always conserving, we’re restoring, we’re reclaiming. Oil and gas companies are always reclaiming the land and restoring it in agreement with the BLM.”

Reality: The oil and gas industry has abandoned thousands of oil and gas wells on federal lands without reclaiming them, leaving taxpayers with the bill.

According to the Government Accountability Office, BLM identified 89 new orphaned wells between July 2017 and April 2019, and BLM offices identified to GAO about $46 million in estimated potential reclamation costs associated with orphaned wells and with inactive wells that officials deemed to be at risk of becoming orphaned in 2018.

The Inflation Reduction Act included $1.15 billion to clean up orphaned wells, according to the Interior Department.

Rhetoric: The rule would allow China to purchase conservation leases.

Noem: “There’s no guidelines on who can purchase a conservation lease and who can’t. What’s to prevent China from coming in and purchasing conservation leases on our federal lands?”

Reality: The BLM has discretion over who can purchase conservation leases.

Noem’s wild conspiracy theory isn’t grounded in any language in the proposed rule. It’s so far out there that the rule doesn’t explicitly contemplate foreign governments volunteering to pay for land restoration efforts. However, the BLM’s fact sheet on conservation leasing explains that the proposal was created in response to “feedback from state, local, and industry partners, by ensuring that compensatory mitigation carried out on public lands would be a viable option.” In the extremely unlikely event that a foreign government wanted to undertake restoration on American public lands, the rule makes it clear that land managers have full discretion to reject any conservation lease proposal that does not serve the American people and our public lands.

Learn more about how the proposed Public Lands Rule will benefit wildlife and public lands