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Environmentalists prepare to defend new BLM rule against legal challenges

Mimbres Peaks in southern New Mexico
Mason Cummings
The Bureau of Land Management
Mimbres Peaks in southern New Mexico

A new Interior Department Public Lands Rule creates measures to support conservation, recreation and clean energy development on public lands. The rule could affect about 17% of New Mexico's land, which is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

But even as the rule's supporters celebrate, they are gearing up to defend it in court.

Advocates for conservation, recreation and wildlife told reporters Monday they were celebrating the rule, which changes the way land can be used on nearly 250 million acres nationwide.

The BLM already leases out land for uses like oil and gas extraction, and grazing. The new rule, among other things, creates leases for restoration and mitigation and designates some areas as being of critical environmental concern.

A restoration lease could enable a conservation group to restore wildlife habitat. A mitigation lease could, for instance, allow a company or organization that gets a permit for a renewable energy project to compensate for loss of habitat by restoring or enhancing habitat in a different area on public lands.

"It's a groundbreaking step toward leveling the playing field for conservation and tribal voices alongside other public land uses," said Keegan King, from the Pueblo of Acoma, the founder of the Native Land Institute advocacy group.

"This is crucial for maintaining ecosystem health in the face of climate change," he added, "especially for rural and tribal communities reliant on traditional practices, like farming, grazing and cultural site protection."

But some industry groups and politicians argue that the new policy violates the original mandate of the BLM to manage lands for multiple uses by prioritizing conservation. Some have threatened legal action, including the Western Energy Alliance whose president Kathleen Sgamma said in a statement that the new rule is a "classic example of overreach by the Biden Administration".

“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,” said Utah's Governor Spencer Cox in a statement, adding that the state would challenge the rule in federal court.

"There are very likely to be legal challenges, possibly soon," said Chris Winter from the University of Colorado Law School. He thinks the challengers will have an uphill battle in court.

"The statute that Congress gave to BLM in 1976 says 'manage for the long term sustainability of the environment, for wildlife habitat, for clean water, for recreation, for cultural values'," he said.

However, he added that federal environmental litigation is uncertain and said the BLM and the Department of Justice will likely have to defend the rule vigorously in the federal court system.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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