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New public land rule is a major step forward but questions remain

(April 22, 2024) Last week, the Biden Administration released  the new “Public Lands Rule,”  which has some promising language that could allow for better management of 245 million acres of public lands, roughly one-tenth of the land area of the United States. This rule codifies the clear direction of the 1976 Federal Land Management and Policy Act (FLPMA) that conservation is a land use with equal standing to extractive uses of public lands, something that conservation groups have been pushing for years.

WWP and our allies commented extensively on the proposed rule, and we’re pleased to see that some of our recommendations were incorporated into the final language. While the final rule didn’t do everything we asked, and left far too much discretion with local managers, it’s much improved as a result of incorporating public participation in the rule’s development.

For example, the final rule strengthened the Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) requirements by mandating protective management at the time of their designation. This ensures that these areas receive the special attention they require, not just in name but in practice.  The new rule also makes it harder to remove ACEC designation when plans are updated, guaranteeing long-term preservation efforts.

The final rule requires the agency to identify “intact landscapes,” offering a framework for their protection. This includes wildlife corridors and old-growth forests as critical components of these landscapes, which we hope will mean that mature pinyon-juniper forests would be spared deforestation for the benefit of livestock operations. However, the rule stops short of mandating these protections, leaving their implementation to the discretion of Bureau managers.

We are currently assessing the extent to which the new rule’s introduction of  the restoration and mitigation leases will permit grazing to play a role in conservation efforts. We asked the agency to address this, but the final rule doesn’t provide the clarity we need to be sure that these leases don’t act as a perverse incentive to keep livestock on the land even when they are the cause of degradation. We also have concerns that the rule could contribute to the destruction of public lands by extractive uses and development with the offering of mitigation leases. These leases are intended to offset any damage caused, but we are worried that they may not fully compensate for the losses. Instead of focusing primarily on mitigation, we believe that the rule should prioritize avoiding impacts altogether.

Overall, WWP views this rule with a “wait and see” approach. We remain concerned that leaving so much up to the discretion of local land managers will diminish its effectiveness for real, meaningful conservation.

The next steps of turning this generally broad direction into specific management prescriptions will tell us a lot about whether the Bureau is really serious about conservation, or if it will just be business as usual at the Bureau of Livestock and Mining.

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