Editor’s note: This analysis was updated March 24, 2023, to reflect the Bureau of Land Management’s announcement of its forthcoming rulemaking process.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees the most U.S. land of any entity—245 million acres that span the ecologically rich Sonoran and Mojave deserts of Arizona and California, the expansive basin and range complexes of the intermountain West, the panoramic canyon country of the Colorado Plateau, the sagebrush-steppe habitat found throughout the West, and remote watersheds sustaining communities in Alaska.
These lands are all traditional homelands of Indigenous peoples. And although much of these places look much like they have for millennia, the broader U.S. West is rapidly transforming, a change that could threaten the natural, cultural, and economic value of BLM lands. In short, companies seeking to mine, drill, and otherwise develop these federal lands are squaring off against those who want to strengthen protection of the terrain, leaving agency leaders to address modern-day challenges using policies that are decades and, in some cases, centuries old.
The BLM will, in the coming weeks, seek public input on a proposed rule to update and modernize the agency’s tools and strategies for managing America’s public lands. With climate change increasingly affecting the nation’s public lands and waters, and the growing importance of those spaces for recreation and ecosystem health, the proposed rule would help protect abundant and well-connected wildlife habitat, clean drinking water sources, and tourism- and recreation-related revenue for local economies. Here are four reasons why the agency’s action is needed:
1. BLM lands have irreplaceable natural value
The agency’s holdings include habitat for 245 plant and wildlife species listed under the Endangered Species Act and 800 rare plant species, 450 of which are found only on BLM lands. For the most part, these areas contain a higher density of biodiversity than lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and provide habitat for more imperiled species than lands managed by the National Park Service. Many BLM lands are immediately adjacent to national parks, and many wildlife herds use that connectivity to migrate seasonally to and from parks, including Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Wyoming’s Yellowstone, Utah’s Capital Reef, and California’s Joshua Tree.
2. Strong conservation of BLM lands sustains local economies
The more than 80 million recreation visits to BLM lands annually contribute $11.4 billion to the national economy. More than half of these visits are for hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing. These quiet recreation activities alone generate 25,000 jobs throughout the West, $1.8 billion in visitor spending in local communities, and more than $2.8 billion of total economic output (in 2014 dollars). Hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching on BLM-managed public lands in the 11 contiguous western states and Alaska supported 26,500 jobs, generated more than $1 billion in salaries and wages, and produced over $421 million in federal, state, and local tax revenue (in 2016 dollars). These jobs benefit the rural West.
3. Most BLM lands lack true protection
More than 85% of BLM’s 245 million acres are open to oil development, mining, and logging. Improving conservation of BLM lands is critical for a host of reasons, including to help meet President Joe Biden’s commitment to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 to help address the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. Much of BLM’s domain remains in its natural state, providing habitat connectivity corridors for wildlife, sustaining cultural and spiritual traditions and practices, sequestering and storing carbon, and serving as a source of clean water and air for local communities. Leaving the land unprotected could threaten all these benefits.
4. BLM lands face increasing threats
More than 90% of BLM lands are available to be leased to oil and gas developers, and more than 6,500 existing leases remain unused. A 150-year-old mining law still on the books gives priority to hard rock mining over all other public lands uses, including watershed and wildlife habitat protection, safeguarding cultural landscapes, and hiking and other recreation. Most BLM lands remain open to poorly managed offroad vehicle use and domestic livestock grazing that can adversely affect water quality and elevate wildfire threats across the landscape.
A look at BLM policies shows why the agency was long referred to as the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining.” There is little regulatory guidance on how the agency should manage for conservation—one of the multiple uses under its legislative mandate. In fact, proper regulations were put in place soon after the passage of the agency’s enabling statute, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, but were then eliminated during regulatory reform efforts in the 1980s. BLM has failed to properly incorporate and consistently manage areas of critical environmental concern, places with special fish and wildlife, archaeological, or other unique values. Without a durable conservation framework, the agency has adopted management plans that often favor pro-development policies far more than conservation measures.
In updating BLM policies, the Biden administration must fix that imbalance and should prioritize conservation of important wildlife migration corridors, provide co-stewardship opportunities for Tribal Nations, and ensure that management of the land ensures sustained economic benefit for communities throughout the West—one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. It’s highly unlikely that BLM can meet 21st century challenges with the antiquated policies currently in place.
The Biden administration must adopt regulations that put watersheds, cultural resources and landscapes, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation interests on equal footing with grazing, mining, and oil and gas industries whose priorities have long dictated how BLM lands are managed. Sustainable management requires the establishment of a strong structure for the protection of this shared domain.
America’s public lands are vast but increasingly vulnerable to a growing array of threats. By establishing a robust conservation framework for BLM lands now, the White House can lock in preservation of our natural and cultural heritage and provide real opportunities for solutions that benefit all stakeholders and rights holders, far into the future.
Ken Rait is a project director and Laurel Williams is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.