Federal Plans Put Public Lands Across the West at Risk

BLM proposals would favor development over conservation and threaten recreation, culture, and economy

Federal Plans Put Public Lands Across the West at Risk
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Looking northwest toward Horse Camp Trail in Musselshell Breaks, Montana, one of the areas at risk under Bureau of Land Management plans.
Tony Bynum

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees almost 245 million acres of public land across the West, a wildly diverse array of areas that are immensely popular with hunters, anglers, hikers, boaters, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Conservation of these areas sustains significant populations of wildlife, provides clean drinking water for millions of people, and contributes to local and regional economies. But now, more than ever in recent memory, the future of these lands is at risk.

Over the past year, the BLM has released draft and final plans for Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Oregon that will guide the management of more than 20 million acres of Western lands for the next two decades. The Pew Charitable Trusts reviewed and analyzed the round of plans released between May 2019 and early 2020 and found troubling trends that portend the loss of protection for millions of acres of public land.

The first round of proposals failed to conserve lands that the BLM’s own research deemed worthy of protection and would remove decades-old safeguards from other places, leaving only a fraction of the areas preserved while opening vast swaths to energy and mineral development. Since then, the Department of Interior has moved forward on five resource management plans, releasing a “record of decision” for the Uncompahgre plan in Colorado; proposed final plans in Lewistown and Missoula, Montana, and Four Rivers, Idaho; and one new draft plan amendment for the Farmington field office in New Mexico—an area that surrounds the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The focus of these new plans on expanding oil and gas development runs counter to the well-established value of these lands for nonmotorized recreation. Activities such as camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing on the millions of acres of public land overseen by the BLM supports 25,000 jobs and generates $2.8 billion for the U.S. economy, according to a 2014 study focused entirely on the economic contribution of “quiet recreation” visitors on BLM lands.

These BLM plans continue a recent trend of significantly reducing protections for longstanding Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs), places where special management is needed to protect important historic, cultural, scenic, or fish and wildlife resources. Further, these plans, as approved by the BLM, would safeguard just 0.03% of the lands that the agency identified as possessing wilderness characteristics—natural places that provide excellent opportunities for solitude or primitive, unconfined recreation. For example, the Uncompahgre draft plan proposed more than 175,000 acres of Ecological Emphasis Areas, none of which made it into the BLM’s record of decision for the Uncompahgre.

Neither the Lewistown nor the Missoula proposed plans in Montana include any lands with wilderness characteristics—areas larger than 5,000 acres that have maintained their primitive character—despite the BLM’s findings that more than 202,000 acres meet the criteria, including the Chain Buttes, Fort Musselshell, and Spear Coulee areas. The Lewistown plan removes ACEC classification from the Collar Gulch and Judith Mountains scenic areas and assigns them a less-protective designation that does not adequately safeguard important wildlife species and unique geologic cave resources—for example, the Townsend’s big-eared bat, a BLM-listed sensitive species that uses the Tate-Poetter cave as a hibernation site, was left unprotected. The plan does restore ACEC designation for Square Butte, which had been slated for elimination, but also alters the management of the area to open it up to motorized use. This area includes artifacts and archaeological sites that document 9,000 years of human habitation. The agency acknowledged that it is “(e)xceptionally rare for an area of its size to retain such a large number, density, and diversity of cultural properties.”

The Four Rivers plan in Idaho similarly contains no management directive to protect lands with wilderness characteristics and proposes to reduce by 40% an ACEC that was designated to safeguard breeding habitat for the long-billed curlew, even though BLM’s own environmental impact statement documents the bird’s continued decline.

Although the Lewistown, Missoula, and Four Rivers plans include designations of backcountry conservation areas for 12% of the planning areas, those protections should be strengthened to better protect wildlife habitat and water quality.

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Although structures within Chaco Culture National Historical Park—such as these great houses—are protected, valuable cultural resources on surrounding lands, including ancient roads, houses, underground ceremonial rooms, and artifacts, are at risk.
iStock photo

The BLM lands surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico have great significance for indigenous people in the region, including the Pueblos and the Navajo Nation. But the agency’s draft management plan for the area calls for leasing 90% of the lands outside the park for oil and gas development. The All Pueblo Council of Governors, the New Mexico congressional delegation, and numerous stakeholders have called for the BLM to protect the core area around the park, defined roughly by a 10-mile radius, from oil and gas leasing. The agency recommends at most a 4-mile buffer—and some of its plans include no protection at all.

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The North Fork of the Unalakleet River is part of the 13.4 million-acre Alaska Bering Sea-Western Interior region, which contains areas vital to indigenous communities that have lived, hunted, and fished on these lands for millennia.
David W. Shaw

The BLM’s draft plan for the Bering Sea-Western Interior planning area would eliminate 1.8 million acres of ACEC and proposes no new protections, despite the request by indigenous communities to conserve 7 million acres of traditional-use areas. The BLM originally recommended expansion of the existing 568,083-acre Kateel River ACEC in 2015 but now proposes eliminating existing protection of this watershed. The Kateel River watershed provides critical spawning and rearing habitat for chinook and chum salmon, the major food resource for more than 20 villages from Emmonak to Koyukuk, spanning more than 800 Yukon River miles.

The BLM is expected to release additional management plans for public lands in Alaska, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming in the coming months. Pew urges the agency to manage these lands for the benefit of all Americans by retaining existing safeguards, increasing protections, and more responsibly balancing conservation and development, as the BLM is required to do under its mandate to serve the interests of all Americans.

By ceding millions of acres of public land to oil and gas development while disregarding scientific information, the agency would violate that mandate while diminishing the conservation, recreational, and economic benefits that public lands provide.

Ken Rait is a project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation program.