New Mexico rancher Bret Riley is concerned a new federal rule that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management wants to set in place could interfere with his agricultural business.
Leroy Romero, a retired electrical engineer, didn’t know much about the proposed rule until recently but has questions about how it’ll affect his outdoor hunting and mountain biking activities.
Wildlife attorney Sally Paez says the federal regulation would only be procedural and would set guidance for conserving beautiful wildlife areas in the state.
BLM officials, the ones trying to enact the rule, say this policy would address gaps in the agency’s conservation management efforts while balancing activities on public lands as climate change intensifies.
This was explained on Tuesday in front of a crowd of New Mexicans gathered in a room at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. They were there to hear how federal leaders want to enact a new conservation rule that would affect public lands in the state and across the country.
Gordon Toevs, BLM associate state director, said this rule stems from a legal obligation for the federal agency to conserve public lands through the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, passed by Congress in 1976.
He said it’s taken decades for the federal land management bureau to think about how to fill the gaps in conservation efforts that have never really been clear or consistent in the past.
So the land management agency published its proposed Public Lands Rule in April, with a goal to sustain and protect environments consistently throughout the U.S.
Bureau of Land Management leaders want to do this a few different ways, including protecting landscapes that are already healthy, restoring damaged landscapes and consulting with Indigenous communities.
This would impact over 13 million acres of public land in New Mexico that the BLM oversees. Much of it is taken up with permits for oil and gas extraction, renewable energy purposes, agricultural work and open space recreation.
Controversy around conservation leasing
One of the major components of the proposed rule is conservation leasing, which would allow organizations to lease public lands in order to do restoration work. This would work similarly to the federal bureau’s grazing leases for ranchers or energy companies applying for leases to do oil and gas exploration.
This leasing process is a hot topic in the proposed rule from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Many ranchers, including those at the meeting in Albuquerque, voiced concern that this is just a way to get rid of grazing permittees.
Toevs addressed this upfront. He said conservation leasing is often misunderstood and well-managed grazing is a key component of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
Gordon Toevs speaks about the proposed rule at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center on Tuesday. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
“This is not something that’s new, but it’s something that we have learned over the years on where we have gaps and where we need to have clarity about how we administer what Congress has asked us to do,” he said about the conservation efforts.
A conservation lease that conflicts with any other permit, like a grazing lease, wouldn’t be approved, according to a BLM factsheet.
Brian St. George is the bureau’s deputy assistant director for resources and planning. In a scenario where an organization applies for a conservation lease when a grazing permit is up for renewal, St. George said the BLM would, in most cases, consider if the conservation lease is compatible with the grazing lease first and foremost.
“It is not a mechanism to override valid existing rights, privileges or authorizations that exist on public lands today,” St. George said. “We see many uses to be compatible with and complimentary to the idea of a conservation lease in pursuit of restoration and mitigation.”
Riley, whose ranch is in eastern New Mexico, still wasn’t so sure about grazing protections.
He said that while he’s a proponent of conservation efforts, he’s worried that environmental organizations could use this as a tool to push livestock off public lands.
“There’s a lot of folks out there that would like to see livestock off of public lands. And if that’s what it’s going to be used for, then yeah, that’s a problem,” he said.
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Riley added that agriculturalists need to have a better seat at the table to discuss and change the proposed rule.
“If they really want to do long-term conservation on these landscapes, they need to bring everybody to the table and have a collaborative effort,” he said. “And the producers need to be there because we’re the ones with the boots on the ground.”
He looked around the room, where people were standing in line to ask a BLM expert one question about the rule in the half-hour allocated. Riley said it’s not really a conversation or discussion with New Mexicans.
“This situation feels a little bit like we’re kind of being dictated to instead of being part of the conversation,” he said.
Western lands fight erupts over Bureau of Land Management’s conservation proposal
Riley said ranchers care about the environment out of need. But, he added, the new rules from the federal agency may not be the way to get the right work done.
“If it’s truly used for the betterment of the habitat and the health of the environment, every rancher you’re going to talk to us for that because we make our living off of those lands,” he said.
Romero said he’s also still a bit unsure about the rule. Like Riley, he said he still has questions about the details, specifically about conservation leases, like how long they last and if they restrict access to public lands.
There are more than 46,000 public comments from across the country, with people’s thoughts and concerns on the proposed rule, a mixed batch of supporters and non-proponents. The public comment period ends on June 20.
Paez, staff attorney with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said there’s a lot of misinformation on this topic because people are afraid of change like this.
“People say things like, ‘Oh, this is just like a land grab to give away all of our land to the public and steal all of our stuff,’” she said. “I think people are just worried about change, and it makes people nervous.”
She said this rule would be very procedural, only reflecting what’s already required by the Congress-approved federal public lands act. Still, she added, people have been very emotional about it while not completely understanding the facts behind it.
“I’m concerned that there’s been some inaccurate information and rhetoric and stuff about what it does and what it doesn’t do,” she said.
Addressing a warming globe
Nada Culver is the Bureau of Land Management’s deputy director of policy and programs. She said the proposed rule comes as there’s increased demand on public land for things like recreation and energy development.
“At the same time, we see more pressures than ever, as we see drought and wildfire,” she said. “And I know here in New Mexico, we’ve experienced a lot of that.”
Nada Culver (left) and Brian St. George address questions from the audience. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Paez said this rule would help the state in a time when disasters are prevalent. She said it would allow for the preservation of areas in New Mexico that haven’t been ravaged by disasters.
For example, she said, if nature burns in one part of the state, there’s still a suitable habitat elsewhere that animals could travel to and native plants could repopulate there.
“It’s important to take care of the areas that are actually intact,” she said.
She said taking care of riparian areas would also raise the water table, something important while considering a drier, warmer future for New Mexico watersheds.
Not everyone is so sure of the timing though.
Romero questioned why BLM is doing this now, a concern brought up at the meeting by others.
He said even though addressing climate change is a priority, waiting decades years after Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to enact a conservation initiative like this is a long time.
“The timing is interesting,” Romero said.
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