What do ranchers, oil producers and bike groups have in common? They all want a say in new federal land management rules

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Tom Hesse/CPR News
Mark Roeber, a Paonia rancher and president of the Public Lands Council, in front of Mt. Lamborn in Delta County.

A proposal that would require the Bureau of Land Management to consider conservation on equal footing with other uses like mining or grazing is spurring concerns and excitement in both Congress and Colorado. 

The BLM has long had the mission of managing its land for multiple uses, but until now, leaving areas pristine, or restoring degraded ecosystems hasn’t carried the same weight as other priorities.

The proposed Public Lands Rule would alter how BLM handles its 8.3 million acres in Colorado and nearly 250 million acres nationwide. In its draft form, the rule envisions the creation of conservation leases, similar to the leases already offered for activities like grazing. It also broadens land health assessments the agency uses when making decisions about BLM areas and directs local offices to identify areas for restoration.

Such measures concern other long-standing land users, who say the process hasn’t allowed for adequate public input and could be used to undermine, or even force out, existing activities. 

“The fear is — and I think it's legitimate — is with making conservation a use to where they're issued a permit for 10 years, it looks to the livestock industry (that) this is a way to do away with livestock grazing,” said Mark Roeber, a Paonia rancher and president of the Public Lands Council

But the proposal does have strong support in the environmental community. Bill Erven, who grows fruit and raises alpacas on his land in Clifton, a small community in Mesa County, sees the proposal as a way to right some of the wrongs of past decisions. 

“I just saw, recently, aerial photos of Garfield County. Especially along the interstate, it's just pockmarked every 10 acres with another drill site. And it looks like what the silver miners left back 130 years ago,” Erven said, referring to ongoing ecological problems left behind by historic mines. “We need to think more about what we're doing and not just take it all in this generation and ruin it.” 

A fight that stretches from the West to Washington

The debate around the draft rule in Washington, D.C., has taken a decidedly partisan tinge, as House Republicans doing what they can to make sure the rule — or anything like it —  never goes into effect.

“In the West, we know far better how to manage these lands, and have done better for decades and decades, than any bureaucrat in the East Coast could ever imagine,” said GOP Rep. John Curtis of Utah at a House Natural Resources committee hearing in June on a bill he introduced to force the BLM Director to withdraw the rule.

Colorado Reps. Doug Lamborn and Lauren Boebert cosponsored the legislation.

Many Republicans argue that the draft rule oversteps the authority Congress gave the BLM through the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 – otherwise known as FLPMA.

“Stay in your lane. Okay? We make the laws. Stay in your lane,” GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale told BLM Deputy Director Nada Wolff Culver at the hearing.

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Public lands near Grand Junction, Colorado, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

Opponents to the rule change focused on the explicit examples of multiple use included in FLPMA: “recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, natural scenic, scientific and historical values.” 

“Conservation is a goal. It’s not a use,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance told the committee.

However, the law does state that multiple use is “not limited” to the examples mentioned. And Culver pointed out that conservation is already an element of some of the uses listed, such as watershed or natural scenic, scientific and historical values.

Overall, Sgamma argued the rule, as drafted, is too ambiguous, and warned that conservation leases, which would last 10 years, could preclude other productive uses on those lands.

Culver pointed out that the leases would be a tool to help mitigate or offset impacts from other uses, such as oil and gas production on public lands. Instead of coming up with a mitigation plan that takes place somewhere else — as happens under the current rules — the leases could be used to improve BLM lands instead.

‘Long overdue’

While opponents cast the draft rule as a radical departure from the BLM’s historic mission, the agency says a clear framework for conservation — which they define as essentially protection and restoration –  is needed as more and more people seek to utilize public lands.

“The concepts and the direction in this proposed rule arise out of years of BLM experience in implementing FLPMA and working with public land users on the ground,” said Culver.

Many Democrats agree.

“Conserving these spaces isn’t a radical idea, it’s what the American people want,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, pointing to Colorado College’s State of the Rockies poll that shows strong support for conservation.

California Rep. Jared Huffman added that the BLM issues rules for other uses of their public lands. He said “it seems long overdue and sensible” to take on conservation.

Wild Horses Nevada
Scott Sonner/AP
Wild horses stand behind a fence at the Bureau of Land Management's holding facility in Palomino Valley, Nev., June 5, 2013.

Huffman, along with Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, wrote to Interior Department leaders in support of the direction of the draft rule. Democratic Reps. Joe Neguse and Brittany Pettersen also signed on to the letter. Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper wrote separately to agency leaders in support of the rule.

It also has the support of some local leaders.

“Clarification in the proposed rule that appropriately balances conservation values with other types of land practices will allow the BLM to create management plans that benefit rural economies like ours,” said Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler Henry, who also testified at the House committee hearing.

With Democrats in control of the Senate and Joe Biden in the White House, it is unlikely the Republican effort to block the rule will ever make it beyond the House chamber.

Different land use legacies

Speaking at his ranch in Paonia, Roeber — whose great grandfather staked out the Delta County property in 1889, six years after the state Legislature created Delta County — said grazing can be a part of conservation efforts. And that if the BLM were more willing to incorporate ranchers’ views, it might be able to get more of them on board with this change.  

“Conservation is a big part of ranching in all reality, because, you know, if you're trying to be in it for the long term, which most of these old family ranchers have been, you have to remember that what you do can affect the next year,” Roeber said.  

But he worries the rule being considered lacks a clear intent for how it should be implemented. And without that, he fears it could be used for anything.

Ranchers aren’t the only ones with those concerns. Oil and gas groups have criticized the BLM’s proposal and the International Mountain Biking Association voiced a concern that it could be used to stymie bike trail development. Roeber says hammering out those details for the final draft of the rule is imperative. 

Tom Hesse
Bill Erven gives a tour of the orchard on his family property in Clifton with Mt. Garfield in the background.

“It could swing very, very badly. And of course, they're trying to tell everybody that, no, that's not what the intent is. Well, let's sit down and clarify the intent before we put it out there,” he said. 

One county over, sitting underneath Mt. Garfield, the rockface that looms over Palisade, Erven says he’s no opponent of ranching, but he feels the rule is sorely needed. The small orchard of fruit trees on his land was planted right around the time the BLM was created in the 1940s. He’s spent his life on or adjacent to BLM acreage and Cindi, his wife, worked for the Forest Service.

“I thought, in the protocol for deciding what to do with land use, they would have an equal weight to conservation,” Erven said. “I'm really glad that the current administration's trying to change the rule so that  it includes conservation and preservation as part of what  they should be thinking about with BLM land.”

Roeber said the land benefits of grazing shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, he said, if the BLM did more to incorporate those views into this rule, it would be possible to get cattle growers on board. 

150,000 could shape final rule

If there was one concern that federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle shared through the draft rulemaking, it was that their constituents are fully heard and their views taken into consideration.

Many lawmakers dinged BLM headquarters for not holding hearings in rural areas of the West.

Colorado State BLM Director Doug Vilsack, and other state directors, did travel around talking with stakeholders about the draft.

His message was simple: this is only a starting point. And their suggestions would be important to change it for the better.

“Please get beyond your first reaction to this,” he said. “And look at the words in the rule. And tell how they can be changed. Cause I don’t think there is much debate about the need for actual guidance in how we do conservation in BLM.”

BLM Offices Lakewood
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Bureau of Land Management's offices on Youngfield Street in Lakewood on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.

Public comment on the rule closed July 5. It was extended by 15 days after some in Congress complained the original timeframe was not long enough to let the public share their views. By the time the comment period wrapped up, more than 150,000 people and organizations had submitted their input.

Vilsack does expect those comments to lead to changes in the final law. But that likely won’t be enough to satisfy some members of Congress.

Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, said they might not be able to get a bill to stop the rule through the Senate, but he’ll use what tools the House does have to stop it.

“I will be talking to my friends in the Appropriations Committee and have an amendment in the appropriations bill saying no appropriations will be used to implement this rule the BLM is proposing,” he said at the close of the hearing.

And congressional fights aside, even if a final rule does get implemented, opponents are already predicting it will face immediate legal challenges.