BLM rulemaking is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape conservation policy
The Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Southern Nevada is one of three national monuments in Nevada managed by the Bureau of Land Management.(Department of the Interior)
While it may not receive the national headlines other federal agencies do, the Bureau of Land Management is one of the most consequential agencies in the federal government. Very soon, it could be one of our biggest sources of action to take on climate change.
Altogether, BLM oversees 48 million acres in Nevada and nearly 250 million acres of land across the country. If you’ve ever visited a national monument like Tule Springs or Basin & Range or explored a wilderness area, you can thank the BLM.
For most of its history, however, BLM has focused not on conservation, but on grazing and resource extraction. If national parks are our crown jewels of conservation, BLM lands have been treated as our raw materials. Since 1920, the federal government, through BLM and its predecessors, has leased public lands for the extraction of oil, gas, and other minerals, charging a small royalty on the value of the mined and sold material. You might be familiar with ConocoPhillips’ Willow project on BLM lands in Alaska. The lands are public, but historically, the profit has been private.
This could soon change. In March, the Biden Administration launched a process to create new administrative rules that would fundamentally change the BLM’s organizational priorities. Instead of focusing on extraction above all, the agency would be required to place conservation on equal footing with other considerations in decision-making. That shift would have massive implications for conservation and climate change.
First, it would create a pathway to transform millions of acres of public lands from subsidized industrial zones into landscapes and waterways that are preserved. Our air and water would be protected instead of polluted by industrial waste, like the thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells that leak methane or cancer-causing compounds like benzenes or xylenes. Preserving these places would also supercharge the $450 billion outdoor recreation economy. And landscapes with deep historical, cultural, and spiritual significance could be safeguarded for the next generation.
Second, conserving BLM lands from mineral extraction would protect millions of acres of critical habitat for threatened species. Habitat destruction is one of the main drivers of extinction, and development is the main driver of habitat destruction. Reorienting BLM around conservation would provide a vital lifeline for species, like the Greater sage-grouse, that rely on BLM-managed lands.
Finally, bringing conservation to the heart of BLM decision making could be a significant victory for climate action. The science is clear that protecting 30 percent of lands and waters in the U.S. by 2030 would create a nature-based climate solution to absorb carbon, regulate heat, and purify air and water. BLM lands account for one-eighth of the area of the country, and protecting them would bring us that much closer to achieving that ambitious goal.
And the administration can go even further. When Big Oil proposes new drilling projects – onshore and offshore – the Department of the Interior should be empowered to place conditions on those operations, or reject drilling permits in some cases, to limit their climate impacts. This would ensure that public lands are part of the climate solution, rather than contributing to the climate crisis.
We are at a critical moment for climate action. Scientists agree that this decade must be one of bold action, and President Biden’s approval of the Willow project made those actions that much harder. Placing conservation at the heart of BLM management is just the kind of bold measure we need.
This new rule alone won’t stop oil and gas exploration on public lands or solve the climate crisis. But it will have tangible, meaningful, and immediate positive effects. And when it’s combined with similar efforts at other government agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, it lays out a potential path towards a sustainable climate future. President Biden’s climate legacy can be the Willow project, or it can be the most ambitious reorganization of public lands in history.
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