The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse range in southeastern Montana is one of the areas in Montana overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, which is weighing a rule to put conservation priorities on equal footing with other land uses, such as oil and gas leasing. Credit: Adobe stock. May not be republished without license.

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.


BLM explores utility-scale solar in Montana

The Bureau of Land Management is seeking input on its plan to bring solar energy development to Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. If all goes as planned, the federal government will have enough renewable energy in the pipeline by 2025 to power five million homes, per a target President Joe Biden unveiled in 2020.

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. 

“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.”

Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma

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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Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...