Utah leaders gearing up to fight new BLM conservation rule in the courts and Congress

By: Kyle Dunphey, Utah News Dispatch

From members of Utah’s congressional delegation to the state’s governor and attorney general, elected officials in the Beehive State are voicing their opposition to a new rule from the Bureau of Land Management, vowing to fight it in both Congress and the courts.

The BLM last week finalized its “Public Lands Rule,” which allows parcels of public land to be leased for conservation, similar to how the agency currently leases land for mineral extraction, energy development, recreation or grazing.

The rule would allow for a restoration lease, intended for groups or individuals to improve habitats and restore or conserve land — and a mitigation lease, aimed at offsetting existing development and projects on BLM land.

It was widely celebrated by environmental groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which in a statement said the rule will “keep conservation front of mind.”

“For too long, the BLM has allowed extractive industries to have their way with our public lands. That’s led to degraded landscapes across the West and the decline of iconic species, like the greater sage-grouse. This rule gives the BLM the tools it needs to right these wrongs and start improving the health of our public lands,” said Kate Groetzinger, communications manager for the Center for Western Priorities.

But in Utah, Republicans argued the rule would lock up land, excluding traditional uses like grazing or commercial guiding. According to a statement from the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the rule will “negatively impact the 22.8 million acres of BLM land in Utah.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, in a statement last week, said he looked forward to working with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to fight the rule in federal court.

“The added layers of red tape and federal bureaucracy embedded in the BLM’s Public Lands Rule create new roadblocks to conservation work. The health of Utah’s lands and wildlife will suffer as a result. This Rule is contrary to the bedrock principle of ‘multiple-use’ in the BLM’s governing law, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act,” Cox said.

That was the sentiment from Republican Reps. John Curtis, Celeste Maloy and Blake Moore on Monday during a Federal Lands Subcommittee field hearing — part of the House Committee on Natural Resources — in Sand Hollow State Park in Hurricane.

“The rule favors wealthy individuals and environmental groups by creating a new, convoluted leasing system that will allow them to lock up lands that belong to all Utahns,” said Curtis, who recently sponsored a bill that would permanently repeal the Public Lands Rule.

That bill, the Western Economy Security Today Act, passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee but has yet to receive a full vote from lawmakers.

Curtis argued that any new public lands leasing option should come from Congress, not the BLM, or what he called “the will of one person.”

His bill would promote “true conservation,” Curtis said, “rooted in local input rather than preservationist policies handed down by the Biden administration.”

Moore, who said the rule “doesn’t really solve the problem,” asked Washington County Commissioner Adam Snow whether the policy helps or hinders grazing on public land. Snow called the rule an “absolute hindrance.”

“In this county alone, we have massive amounts of land set aside,” said Snow. “Conservation is important, nothing to take away from that. But, it’s balancing multiple uses, and to elevate the conservation rule to say that conservation is at the same level … that only hinders grazing.”

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance on Monday called the hearing “partisan” and “out of touch with local and national support for protecting public lands.”

“Keeping conservation front and center is particularly important in places like Washington County and across Southwest Utah that are seeing both significant growth and the impacts of climate change such as prolonged drought and diminishing water supplies,” said Travis Hammill, the group’s Washington D.C. director.

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