Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
A Bureau of Land Management bid to overhaul how it manages about 250 million acres of Western lands will take the spotlight Thursday at a hearing before a House Natural Resources panel.
The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will hear the views of state and county officials on how BLM’s proposal will affect their ability to influence agency decisions on land uses like grazing, energy development and recreation.
The agency revises its RMPs roughly every 15 years under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA). The plans — there are about 160 of them — cover millions of acres and can cost millions of dollars each to revise. They dictate which areas will be made available for oil and gas leasing, which will be managed in their primitive state and which will be left open to motorized recreation, among many other things.
BLM’s rule would establish several new opportunities for early public involvement during the planning process; would require the upfront assessment of baseline resource environmental, ecological, social and economic conditions; and would provide flexibility for the agency to plan beyond fixed administrative boundaries, among other significant changes.
“The changes we are proposing will improve our ability to respond to today’s environmental, economic and social realities, including the need to have strong science, early and regular public input and a landscape-level approach to natural resource challenges and opportunities,” Janice Schneider, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said in a statement in February.
States and counties feel they have a lot at stake with the rule. Both the Western Governors’ Association, currently chaired by Gov. Matt Mead (R-Wyo.) and the National Association of Counties requested BLM extend the public comment period. BLM obliged, pushing the deadline back a month to May 25.
For states and counties, a key concern is the extent to which the rule will affirm a FLPMA requirement that BLM “coordinate the land use inventory, planning, and management activities” with states, local governments and tribes and “provide for meaningful public involvement” when crafting plans.
The plans “shall be consistent with state and local plans to the maximum extent [BLM] finds consistent with federal law and the purposes of this act,” the law reads.
Last month, a coalition of counties organized under the Texas-based group American Stewards of Liberty announced plans to fight the BLM rule, warning it “marginalizes” the voice of local governments.
“The changes are sweeping and would significantly reduce the role of state and local governments in public land use inventory and planning and management activities contrary to the statutory provisions of FLPMA,” the coalition said in a press release last month. It includes Kane County, Utah; Garfield County, Colo.; Chaves County, N.M.; Big Horn County, Wyo.; Custer County, Idaho; and Modoc County, Calif., as well as three conservation districts.
Critics worry that the rule’s “landscape” planning focus could diminish the voice of local governments and provide more sway to national environmental groups. Some counties worry whether they’ll have the time and resources to participate in more planning steps and whether BLM has the capacity to facilitate them.
The panel Thursday will hear from Pete Obermueller, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.
Obermueller testified last October before the Federal Lands Action Group, a project led by Utah Republican Reps. Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop, the Natural Resources Committee chairman, that seeks legislation to transfer control of federal lands to Western states.
Obermueller urged counties to make full use of the cooperative role FLPMA grants them in the BLM planning process.
“The truth is that, while never giving counties veto authority or complete equal footing with the federal government, these tools are nonetheless a specific authority granted to counties in federal law to participate in the federal land use decision-making process,” he said in his written testimony. “I promise you the various advocacy groups would love to have that authority.”
Yet, he also warned that some federal lands officials see this statutory requirement as “merely a box to check, not a process to be taken seriously.”
The panel will also hear from Humboldt County, Nev., Commissioner Jim French, whose county has sued BLM to challenge its sage grouse land-use plan revisions, which were finalized in RMP amendments last September. Humboldt and several other Nevada counties and Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) argued the RMP amendment process was tainted by political meddling from environmentalists and a “disregard for public involvement.”
Ryan Flynn, the state’s secretary of environment and the natural resources trustee for New Mexico, will also testify.
The voice of local government will remain a focal point of BLM’s new planning process, BLM Director Neil Kornze said in February.
“Managing the public’s land is a tremendous honor for the employees of this agency, and our work depends on close cooperative relationships with partners and local communities,” he said. “Today’s announcement builds on the work we do every day to provide opportunities for the public to be a part of managing these incredible landscapes.”
Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, May 12, at 2 p.m. in 1324 Longworth.
Witnesses: Pete Obermueller, executive director, Wyoming County Commissioners Association; Ryan Flynn, secretary of environment and the natural resources trustee, New Mexico; Jim French, commissioner, Humboldt County, Nev.; and others TBA.
SUPPORT: If you enjoyed this story produced by Environment & Energy, please consider supporting WyoFile. WyoFile pays a subscription fee to E&E for the right to bring E&E stories to our readers.
— Originally published by Environment and Energy Daily. Contact E&E publishing for permission to republish.