This spring, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the nation’s largest land manager, released a sweeping proposed policy that would represent a fundamental shift in how the agency manages millions of acres of public lands that are under increasing threat from biodiversity loss, climate change, drought, and wildfires. The proposed Conservation and Landscape Health rule provides tools for the BLM to improve the resilience of public lands, conserve important wildlife habitat and intact landscapes, plan for development, and better recognize unique cultural and natural resources on public lands.
The BLM is responsible for more than 10% of our nation’s public lands, most of which are located in the Western U.S. and Alaska. These areas encompass diverse ecosystems ranging from red rock deserts and vast sagebrush seas to forests and free-flowing rivers, and provide habitat for thousands of species of wildlife and plants. In fact, the BLM manages more land for fish, wildlife, and plant habitat than any other agency in the country.
These lands are important for people too, providing clean water and outdoor recreational opportunities and harboring—within the rock, earth, trees, and waters—innumerable stories of human experience.
The BLM manages land for “multiple uses and sustained yield” under the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). While the agency has excelled in part of its multiple use mandate—almost 90% of BLM lands are open to oil and gas leasing, and the vast majority are open to hard rock mining—historically it has done little to manage for sustained yield. Less than 15% of BLM-managed lands are permanently protected. To address this, the draft rule would require that the agency manage lands for conservation at a level on par with the other multiple uses stipulated in FLPMA: energy development, grazing, and recreation.
An important part of the proposed rule addresses Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), a conservation designation created by FLPMA. The rule identifies ACECs as the primary BLM designation for public lands where special management is required to protect important natural, historic, cultural, or scenic resources, systems, or processes.
But to date, the BLM has failed in its responsibility to prioritize the identification and protection of these critical lands. Pew has long urged the agency to provide more consistent and durable protections for deserving public lands that meet the ACEC designation criteria.
Indigenous Nations have also called on the BLM to strengthen the regulations pertaining to ACECs. In 2022, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and the National Congress of American Indians, as well as individual Indigenous Nations, passed resolutions requesting that BLM promulgate regulations to improve ACECs to better safeguard natural and cultural resources on public lands and to prioritize these lands during land management processes.
Another provision of the proposed rule would grant the BLM authority to issue “conservation leases” to promote land protection and ecosystem restoration—important challenges, as half of BLM lands assessed for land health fail to meet standards to achieve physical and biological composition and function. These voluntary leases would help to leverage private funds for conservation and would be made available to “restore public lands or provide mitigation for a particular action,” the rule states. People, organizations, or companies would be able to sponsor lands for up to a decade, depending on the individual proposal, and public access to leased areas would mostly remain open, although the agency notes that some lands could be temporarily closed during restoration work.
While the agency’s draft is a major step forward, BLM must strengthen it to ensure durable and meaningful conservation outcomes, protect important wildlife migration corridors, provide co-stewardship opportunities for Tribal Nations, and sustain economic benefit for communities throughout the West—one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.
Specifically, the final rule should clarify that an area must be designated an ACEC if it possesses relevant and important values or resources and requires special management attention. For places that meet the criteria but aren’t currently undergoing land use planning, BLM should provide interim management to safeguard these values and resources. The agency should further create minimum management standards for the implementation of ACEC designations to ensure protection of the area’s values and resources.
Additionally, Tribes should be engaged for meaningful consultation to ensure that the rule advances opportunities for co-stewardship, incorporates Indigenous knowledge, respects Tribal sovereignty and treaty rights, and protects Tribal cultural areas to honor the historic and present-day connections of Native Americans to their ancestral lands. The BLM should require inventories, assessments, and conservation management for areas of habitat connectivity, such as wildlife migration corridors. Furthermore, the final rule should clarify BLM’s definitions for “areas of habitat connectivity,” “intact landscapes,” and “wide-ranging species.” Finally, the rule should ensure that lands with wilderness characteristics are inventoried and protected.
With the natural world facing severe and urgent threats, it’s time for BLM to better balance conservation and development in its management of public lands. The agency is accepting comments on the proposed rule until June 20. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help shape the future of public lands and the communities and wildlife that depend on them.
Laurel Williams works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.
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