NCBA, PLC ready robust discussion in wake of disappointing BLM proposed rule
April 6, 2023
WASHINGTON, D.C., April 6, 2023 — The Bureau of Land Management has proposed a rule that would clarify conservation as a “use” within the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) multiple use framework. The proposed rule, Strengthening the Stewardship of America’s Public Lands” has been denounced by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council, saying it would “upend BLM’s multiple-use mandate and jeopardizes the agency’s ability to be a good partner to the ranchers who manage millions of acres across the West.”
“Ranchers have a reasonable expectation of transparency and predictability with dealing with the BLM, and this proposed rule falls short on both accounts. The covert manner in which the rule was developed and announced has left permittees feeling like the rule is either a capitulation to the extremist environmental groups who want to eradicate grazing from the landscape, or a concerted effort to develop rules that preclude ranchers’ input,” said NCBA Executive Director of Natural Resources and PLC Executive Director Kaitlynn Glover. “Over the next 75 days, the BLM will have to answer some serious questions about their understanding of their multiple-use mandate and the value they place on their relationship with ranchers across the landscape.”
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he will submit language to the Interior appropriations bill that would prohibit the use of funds to further develop, implement or enforce the rule, and will lead a congressional comment letter opposing the rule and asking that it be rescinded.
According to the summary of the rule on the Federal Register, where it can be read and commented upon until June 20, 2023, the “BLM's ability to manage for multiple use and sustained yield of public lands depends on the resilience of ecosystems across those lands—that is, the health of the ecosystems and the ability of the lands to deliver associated services, such as clean air and water, food and fiber, renewable energy, and wildlife habitat. Ensuring resilient ecosystems has become imperative, as public lands are increasingly degraded and fragmented due to adverse impacts from climate change and a significant increase in authorized use.”
The proposed rule defines conservation to include both protection and restoration activities and it also advances tools and processes to enable wise management decisions based on science and data. To administer the conservation use, the rule establishes a durable mechanism, conservation leases, to promote both protection and restoration on public lands. The rule places conservation on “equal footing” with other uses and would apply land health standards to all BLM-managed public lands and uses and revise existing regulations to better meet FLPMA's requirement that the BLM prioritize designating and protecting Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs).
Glover said the ACECs and the formalization of the process to designate the areas and make it a more formal process to designate areas as such is one of the key parts of the proposed rule. Additionally, the framework to monetize conservation by elevating conservation to one of the multiple uses in FLPMA, and the third consideration as part of the proposed rule are the range health assessments and how those are standards are applied across the landscape.
“Those land health standards are really only applied on grazing allotments, and so from the agency’s perspective, they go into a grazing allotment, they conduct the analysis, and the allotment is either meeting or not meeting standards,” she said. “If it’s not meeting standards, the attribution is grazing because grazing is present on the landscape. They’re not assessing recreational access, or other human impacts, fire, or other surface disturbing activities, nor are they doing those same assessments on non-grazed acres so by default grazing bears the burden of meeting those land health assessments in a way that is absolutely not representative of larger landscape objectives.”
Glover said the process around the proposed rule is quite concerning.
Public lands can be nominated as ACEC by anyone. The area is then evaluated through land use planning and must require special management attention to protect important and relevant values. If the area meets the criteria, a draft use plan is developed, and members of the public have the opportunity to review and comment on proposed ACEC and the associated management options.
In Colorado, approximately 450,000 public land acres are designated ACEC. In Wyoming, nearly 700,000 acres, and more than 478,000 acres in Montana. Notably, Alaska has 8.7 million acres designated as ACEC. These areas are all managed according to the Resource Management Plan.
Glover said grazing is the sole use defined by FLPMA that is, in itself, a conservation activity.
“Grazing is conservation,” she said. “From the baseline that grazing is a conservation activity, maintaining grazing on the landscape is absolutely a top priority for us.”
In reviewing the conservation leasing language that is the second piece of the three-pronged approach of the proposed rule, it appears that the rule is not only a way to remove grazing, but also remove other multiple uses from the landscape.”
The Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act requires multiple use – a variety of uses that are ecologically and situationally appropriate – that is done under an assessment and sustained yield, a value that is derived from those landscapes for the American people.
“Grazing obviously provides that value, in addition to the ecosystem services, that $24.5 billion in actual revenue generated from clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, and the like,” she said. “We also see revenue generated not only from beef and lamb but also from those grazing fee payments, monies that go back to the agency.”
The proposed rule, she said, tries to create a similar structure for conservation, elevating conservation to a “use” and monetizing it under the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act and FLPMA. The problem is if one use is valued higher by the agency and is not compatible with other uses, the agency will have the ability to remove those other multiple uses from the landscape.
“So, if at any point in time, a determination is made that some abstract definition of conservation has a higher value than the grazing or the other activities on the land, the process will provide for selecting the highest value use.”
Though she said it’s not an immediate process, this sets up a fundamental shift in the agency’s authority, processes, and priorities. It is not only the greatest hidden danger of the proposed rule, but also the biggest change in how the agency sees their objectives in the past decades. Glover said the agency has been clear that this proposed rule was developed in-house, using expertise within the BLM and felt they had the authority and the context to develop this proposed rule.
“From a stakeholder perspective, from a partner perspective because grazing permittees are supposed to be partners with the agency, that’s a really disappointing and disheartening approach because there was no stakeholder outreach. There was no advanced consultation and for an agency that has professed for the past several years to be trying to build trust with their permittees and their partners, to have obviously a very long process to develop a rule that they know is going to be incredibly controversial and incredibly damaging without any consultation is directly counter to the trust they’ve been trying to build.”
Because that trust has been damaged, she said even if good provisions were added to the proposed rule, it is unlikely to have a warm reception from permittees. That said, she encouraged individual engagement, saying it would be incredibly important during the rule making process. The third charge of the rule-making process is formalizing the process to formalize ACECs.
“ACECs across the West are already widespread and the list of proposed ACECs continues to grow,” she said. “The bottom-line concern we have here at PLC and NCBA is that there are radical environmental groups who have put together proposals for upcoming rulemakings that essentially continue this narrative that ACECs should be used as de facto critical habitat designations or wilderness designations and even monument designations seeking to restrict multiple use, and in a lot of cases specifically restrict grazing.”
These proposals put forth by radical environmental groups, she said, do not create favorable outcomes for the landscape. Individuals with lived experiences on multiple use lands providing comments on the proposed rule, then, becomes more important. She said although the proposed rule carries significant concerns within the grazing community, this has significant implications for all multiple uses including recreation, hunting, energy and the like. Grazing, though, she said already has the distinction of already being a conservation activity, putting NCBA and PLC in a unique position to lead comments through the rule making process.
“The agency has said that they want to create a dialogue,” she said. “They threw a first draft out there to generate discussion, and discussion they will have.”
Glover said the process thus far has been incredibly disappointing, but ultimately permittees are committed to being partners with the agency because it does take a successful partnership to keep these landscapes healthy.
“Ranchers do the hard work, and we need agencies to support their hard work,” she said. “Our engagement will be robust, but we did get off to a significantly rocky start.”
Source: National Pork Producers Council