Analysis: Public comments overwhelmingly support BLM Public Lands Rule

Jul 5, 2023

DENVER—A new statistical analysis of more than 150,000 public comments finds nearly universal support for the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed Conservation and Landscape Health Rule, colloquially known as the Public Lands Rule.

The Center for Western Priorities performed a sentiment analysis on a random sample of 10,000 public comments submitted to as of the morning of July 5, 2023, in the closing hours of a 90-day public comment period.

CWP’s analysis found 92 percent of the comments encouraged the Interior Department to adopt the Public Lands Rule as written or strengthen its conservation measures. 4.5 percent of comments encouraged the department to withdraw or significantly weaken the rule. Another 3.5 percent of comments did not express a clear opinion in support or opposition to the rule. The statistical analysis has a margin of error of ±0.5 percent.

“This analysis shows overwhelming—though not surprising—levels of support for the Biden administration’s conservation agenda,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director at the Center for Western Priorities. “Americans know that public lands are central to the Western way of life, and that they will play a pivotal role in the nation’s response to the climate crisis. The support expressed during the comment period shows that the BLM is on the right track to restoring balance across the West.”

The analysis used a combination of automated and manual classification of comments to categorize them as primarily “supportive,” “opposed,” or “neutral” on the proposed rule. The full set of analyzed comments and the toolchain used for the sentiment analysis are available online.

BLM’s proposed Public Lands Rule would clarify how land managers across the West implement the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, known as FLPMA. The text of FLPMA’s “multiple use” mandate has always placed conservation alongside other uses of public lands, including mining, oil and gas drilling, and grazing. But BLM’s implementation of the law has never explicitly treated conservation as one of those uses. The proposed rule would bring BLM’s implementation of the law in line with its text and congressional intent by providing guidance on the use of FLPMA’s leasing authority to restore or conserve land to help BLM reach its goals. The proposed rule also increases the use of BLM’s land health standards across all BLM lands, rather than just rangelands, and clarifies procedures for the identification and designation of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs), another pillar in the text of FLPMA.

Despite a coordinated industry effort to kill or weaken the proposed rule, CWP’s analysis found limited opposition in the public comments, with an estimated 7,000 out of 152,000 comments encouraging BLM to withdraw or weaken the rule. By contrast, an estimated 138,000 comments supported the rule and its goals. The estimated 5,000 comments that were neutral largely encouraged BLM to add specific language around wilderness or wild horses and burros to the rule without expressing clear support or opposition to the overall goals of the rulemaking.

The sheer number of comments submitted reflect the passion Americans have for public lands. The comments CWP reviewed included coordinated campaigns by conservation and business groups, technical comments from governments and scientists, and even handwritten, heartfelt letters from public lands users. 

“The public comments show that congressional attempts to short-circuit this rule are misguided,” Rokala added. “The American people aren’t falling for the fear-mongering and disinformation coming from the oil and gas industry, even if some members of Congress are. Voters want the Biden administration to restore degraded landscapes while also making sure public lands play a central role in our renewable energy future.”

The Bureau of Land Management will review and use the public comments during the next step of the rulemaking process to revise, clarify, and improve the proposed rule. The revised rule would then be reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget before being finalized and published in the Federal Register. The revision process could take up to a year to complete.

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