This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.
Through June 20, the Bureau of Land Management is accepting comments on a public land proposal that the agency put conservation priorities — e.g., ecological health and the “resilience of renewable resources” — on equal footing with long-established agency objectives such as livestock grazing and oil, gas and coal leasing.
More specifically, the proposed rule would establish conservation as a “use” under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in an effort to “protect intact landscapes, restore degraded habitat, and make wise management decisions based on science and data.” As proposed, the new rule would allow the BLM to lease land for conservation purposes to tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, individuals or businesses. According to an Interior Department release, such leases could be used to protect wildlife migration corridors, for example, or establish carbon markets. In the latter example, the BLM might accept payment for a 10-year lease to leave grassland undisturbed for carbon sequestration.
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The U.S. Senate voted 50-48 along party lines Thursday to approve the nomination of Montanan Tracy Stone-Manning to lead the Bureau of Land Management. In that post, she’ll oversee management of 12% of the United States’ landmass.
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Broadly speaking, the proposal has been cheered by conservationists and blasted by oil and gas groups and agricultural organizations.
In a statement April 12, Wild Montana celebrated the environmental and recreational implications of the rule, describing it as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to vastly improve how we manage our public lands.”
“The greater emphasis the BLM places on conservation would help the agency mitigate the effects of the climate crisis,” according to Wild Montana Public Lands Director Maddy Munson.
“It would help the agency keep our streams running cold, clear and connected, giving trout the thermal refuge they need to survive during extreme heat. It would also help the agency keep our wildlands intact and connected, offering wildlife the space they’ll need to move in response to drought and a warming climate.”
Wild Montana also noted that the rule would direct the agency to include land health assessments and monitoring for things like water and soil quality, wildlife habitat and vegetation diversity in management plans and decision-making.
Earlier this year, an analysis by watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found that more than 25 million acres of BLM-managed land, about one-fifth of its total acreage, failed to reach land-health benchmarks for such considerations.
Western Energy Alliance takes a different view of the rule, arguing that it’s a “reinterpretation” of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that goes far beyond Congress’ intention.
“The last time BLM tried this truck, it was overturned by Congress,” Western Energy Alliance president Kathleen Sgamma wrote in a statement. “This rule suffers from some of the same problems but goes beyond even that rule. It seems that the administration is thumbing its nose at the Supreme Court, which ruled in West Virginia v. [Environmental Protection Agency] that an agency must stay within the bounds of the law and going forward with this and many other regulations that grant powers to agencies they just don’t legally have.”
The Supreme Court ruling Sgamma referenced was a rejection of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to regulate emissions from coal and gas plants at a regional, rather than project, scale.
Perhaps no other federal land managing entity has seen more change under the Biden administration than the BLM. Per Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the BLM in 2022 made sweeping reforms to its oil and gas leasing program after instituting a temporary moratorium on new leases as part of Biden’s climate agenda. More recently, the agency announced plans to introduce a utility-scale solar leasing program in five western states, including Montana.
The BLM manages nearly one-tenth of the United States’ landmass, or 245 million acres. The agency is the second-largest land manager in Montana, providing oversight of 8 million acres of land in addition to 47 million acres of federal mineral rights. According to Wild Montana, 90% of the land managed by the BLM in Montana is available for oil and gas leasing. Tracy Stone-Manning, a Montanan who formerly headed up the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and worked with the National Wildlife Federation, is the BLM’s director.
The agency is hosting a virtual webinar on the proposal on June 5, at 9:30 a.m., Mountain Standard Time. Comments can be submitted to the Federal Register here. As of May 26, more than 45,000 comments on the proposal have been submitted.
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Judge rules in favor of corner-crossing hunters
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Montana by the Numbers: $54 million
$54 million in federal funds from a 2020 COVID-19 relief package for Montana public schools remains to be used, and are set to expire Sept. 30.