Take a road trip through America’s western states and you’ll drive for hours through the millions of acres of our nation’s vast and essential public lands. From deep canyons across the sagebrush sea to the north slope of Alaska, federal public lands encompass some of our nation’s most iconic places that are not only important ecologically and culturally, but economically as well. Healthy public lands also support communities by providing for water supply, recreation, hunting and fishing, and access to nature.
Birds rely heavily on these public lands and waters. More than 300 bird species spend more than half of their time living across these landscapes. Effective management and conservation efforts can make a significant difference in whether these species thrive or slide towards extinction.
Conservation remains among the most fertile common ground of public opinion today. There is overwhelming support for the kind of effort required to maintain these special places. We love our wide-open spaces, remote landscapes, irreplaceable wilderness and iconic wildlife and want them conserved, stewarded and sustained for our children, grandchildren and generations to come. Americans’ passion for conservation crosses state lines and party lines.
Nearly 40 percent of all US public lands are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM’s mission is to manage public lands for multiple use and sustained yield, a mandate that includes conservation. But for BLM to maintain our public lands for both present and future generations – as required by law – BLM must align its management of public lands with its mission and truly balance conservation on BLM lands with other uses.
BLM is charged with balancing the productive use of vast areas, and for most of its 50 years, that has meant extractive uses like mining, energy and timber production. Today, more than 90 percent of BLM land is open to oil and gas, mining, and other extraction and commodity-driven development, which involves an intricate amount of planning, procedures and paperwork.
While extractive uses of BLM lands have volumes of regulations and policies to drive implementation, there’s no comparable effort in place for BLM to execute its conservation mission. Said simply, the BLM does not currently have detailed regulations that promote and direct consistency in conservation efforts for all resources.
That’s why the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management have announced a plan for our public lands. National Audubon Society recently submitted our comments on the proposed rule, expressing our support for the rule and outlining recommendations for further clarification and effective implementation. This was joined by a comment letter submitted by 194 independent Audubon chapters in 41 states, and by 14,274 individual comments submitted by Audubon activists.
The proposed rule lays out a suite of proposals that would help to advance better management by:
Clarifying that conservation is a use on par with other uses of the public lands to which BLM’s legal requirements to manage for multiple-use and sustained-yield apply;
Leveling the playing field by requiring that all uses of BLM-managed lands meet land-health standards. Currently only federal livestock grazing allotments are held to land health standards, and this rule would hold all uses of BLM lands up to that same bar;
Empowering land managers to identify and prioritize lands that need restoration;
Providing for conservation leases for mitigation and restoration. While tools like conservation leases and durable conservation agreements are novel, they are not new and the rulemaking would allow for broader use and application;
Prioritizing the identification and evaluation of BLM lands for protection as "areas of critical environmental concern," or ACECs. While BLM is legally required to give priority to the identification, designation, and protection of ACECs, BLM has been inconsistent in applying this management tool;
Prioritizing intact landscapes to help support wildlife and habitat connectivity.
Putting in place rules for conservation does not change BLM responsibilities with regard to existing authorizations or valid existing rights. BLM is required to manage for multiple use of public lands, which includes other uses like grazing, which can be a form of stewardship, and renewable energy development, which is needed to meet the challenges of climate-threatened future. The rule does support balanced management of public lands and voluntary opportunities.
While the comment period closed on July 5th, 2023, the debate will continue. There are already proposals in Congress to challenge these plans by the BLM. But conserving our public lands has been a shared value for more than a century. We plan to make sure Congress knows that conserve is a verb. You have to do it.