May 16, Progressive Party with Sen. Schumer Get tickets

Protect Local Communities’ Voices in Public Lands Management

Seen is a Bureau of Land Management range marker in the proposed location of three solar energy generation complexes in the eastern Mojave Desert several miles from Ivanpah, California, September 2008.

The Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, figures prominently in the lives of community members across the country. This is particularly true for members of rural communities, who often live and work on and around public lands. Indeed, the BLM is responsible for managing more land and resources than any other public agency: 245 million acres of America’s public lands and 30 percent of its subsurface minerals fall under the bureau’s purview. Federal law requires the BLM to plan for land use in order to ensure that it exercises good stewardship and balances the different activities that occur on public lands.

Land use planning is an immensely complex process because it must take into account the needs of many different stakeholders who often have competing interests, such as ranchers, energy developers, and sportsmen. In an effort to improve its land use planning, the BLM spent more than two years outlining a more inclusive approach and collecting more than 6,000 public comments. The end result was Planning 2.0, a new rule that improves land use planning by encouraging BLM managers to engage stakeholders much earlier in the planning process and places a greater emphasis on the landscape around the land the bureau manages.

However, Republicans in Congress are gearing up to roll back Planning 2.0 through the Congressional Review Act, or CRA. The CRA gives Congress the power to reverse specific rules made by the executive branch. In doing so, the CRA also specifically states that the executive branch—or indeed, any department that sees its rule overturned—can never again issue a rule that is “substantially the same” in its form or content. Eliminating the Planning 2.0 rule would therefore require the bureau to operate under land use planning protocols that are less than ideal and would limit the public’s input into how its public lands are managed. Prior to the Planning 2.0 rule, the BLM had been following land use planning protocols developed more than 30 years ago.

As Congress threatens to turn back the clock on our public lands, here are three important issues to consider.

1. The BLM would be forbidden from pursuing similar improvements to its planning process in the future

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act requires the BLM to develop resource management plans, or RMPs, for all of the land that it manages. These plans must account for multiple uses and sustained yield, which requires stakeholder engagement and balancing a wide range of needs as well as current and future land use. Planning 2.0 greatly improved the process for developing RMPs, but if the rule is reversed through the CRA, any future BLM efforts to improve the resource management planning process would be permanently hamstrung.

2. Reversing the Planning 2.0 rule would cut opportunities for local communities to provide input on land use plans

One of the greatest motivations for the updated planning rule was to increase and expand the input of stakeholders whose livelihoods depend on public lands. After years of slow planning, complaints that the BLM was not accounting for all stakeholders when it developed RMPs, and frequent litigation by stakeholders, the BLM entered a long revision process that took more than two years to complete and produced Planning 2.0.

Planning 2.0 required, for the first time, that the BLM seek public input on land use before beginning the formal planning process. It explicitly lists activities that must be considered, including outdoor recreation—a fast-growing $646 billion sector that relies on public lands. This update puts outfitters, gear manufacturers, guides, and other outdoor businesses on equal footing with extractive industries that drill and mine on public lands. It also requires consultation with tribal entities and local governments so that land is managed appropriately for nearby communities.

BLM staff members are required to use this input to prepare management alternatives before the traditional planning process begins. These management alternatives also include their own opportunities for public comment. Adding public voices earlier in the process supports more informed planning based on public engagement, making public lands work better for all users.

3. The old BLM land use planning process was considerably slower

The previous planning process for the BLM was arduous and slow, leaving resource users and communities uncertain of how they could use the land for livestock grazing, energy development, or outdoor recreation. On average, it took eight years for the BLM to complete the full land use planning process for each unit it manages.

“Too often,” said the BLM director in a press release announcing Planning 2.0, “by the time we’ve completed a plan, community priorities have evolved and conditions on the ground have changed as well.”

Eliminating Planning 2.0 would again formalize this problem, delay improved land management, and silence communities that depend on public lands.

Conclusion

An improved planning process is a necessity for rural communities and economies. Federal lands are central to so many of the activities that are essential to rural life—including grazing, energy development, hunting and fishing, and outdoor recreation. Poorly planned activities, therefore, can have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for communities. Reversing the Planning 2.0 rule would cripple the planning process and make it even more difficult to ensure that public lands serve the users who depend on them.

Ryan Richards is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Public Lands team at the Center for American Progress.