In latest skirmish of western land wars, Congress supports mining and ranching

Sheep move through public lands near Shoshone, Idaho. BLM/Flickr, CC BY

Republicans in Congress are enthusiastically using the Congressional Review Act to overturn regulations finalized during the last weeks of the Obama administration. One measure on their list is the Bureau of Land Management’s new Planning 2.0 rule, which is designed to improve BLM’s process for making decisions about ranching, energy development and other uses of public lands. The House has already voted to repeal the rule, and the Senate is likely to follow.

As an environmental historian, I see this as the latest skirmish in a long-running battle over use of the quarter-million acres of public lands managed by BLM.

Historically, BLM has been dominated by commodity interests, especially ranchers and mining companies. But in the 1970s Congress passed several laws that increased public involvement in land management decisions. It also directed BLM to balance extractive uses such as mining, grazing and logging with other activities, such as wildlife conservation, recreation and preservation of wilderness areas. These laws shifted the agency into what has been called a “green drift” toward greater environmental protection, even in the face of subsequent congressional gridlock.

This is not a simple Washington-versus-local struggle. Many westerners, including some Republican officials, support the idea of opening up the planning process and doing it across larger areas. Overturning Planning 2.0 exposes BLM to charges of ignoring science, collaboration and the public – criticisms that it has worked for decades to overcome. And it will probably lead to more of the lawsuits that inspired the rule in the first place.

The Bureau of Livestock and Mining

BLM’s history makes it vulnerable to charges of not listening to a wide public. An agency of the Interior Department, it was created in 1946 through a merger of the General Land Office and the U.S. Grazing Service. Government experts had found that 95 percent of rangelands in the public domain had declined since the turn of the century due to “excessive stocking,” or overgrazing.

However, BLM was so attentive to its main constituencies – ranchers and mineral companies – that it quickly became known as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. In its early years, power rested almost entirely with grazing advisory boards, made up of local ranchers who assigned grazing permits on government rangelands. At one point these boards even helped pay BLM employee salaries.

Through the 1970s western land management was a classic example of what political scientists call an “iron triangle,” in which tightly connected congressional committees, bureaucracies and interest groups enact policy. Such relationships typically favor the narrow self-interest of commodity groups.

According to early studies of BLM, such as Philip Foss’ 1960 book “Politics and Grass,” the agency was “captured” by livestock interests. Political scientist Grant McConnell observed in 1966 that BLM’s decentralized structure was designed to allow “home rule on the range” – just what ranchers wanted.

Lazy B Ranch near Duncan, Arizona in 1945. The ranch was the childhood home of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and is on an active grazing allotment managed by BLM. BLM/Flickr, CC BY

Gradual opening

In the 1970s BLM started to become more independent and manage land in a more adaptive and balanced way. This was partly due to the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, which gave the public a new role in federal policy. Agencies proposing major projects were required to produce environmental impact statements that were subject to public review. This opened up federal agencies to greater scrutiny and allowed new voices to influence agency decisions. It also increased litigation and slowed down the planning process as more constituencies became involved.

The 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act increased BLM’s power to regulate grazing and mining, and made wilderness a new priority in its multiple-use portfolio. Ranching and mining interests now had to compete and cooperate with wildlife advocates and other nonextractive users.

These new policies improved BLM decisions by enabling the agency to consider science, such as rangeland ecology and habitat protection for endangered species, and the noneconomic values of wilderness and wildlife. They also disrupted power balances. Many western stakeholders felt that national priorities were displacing local needs and traditions.

Their dissatisfaction spawned the Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s and early 1980s and its descendants. Ever since then, commodity interests have bristled at having to incorporate broadly environmental values in western land use decisions, instead of basing them strictly on economics that favored ranchers with below-market grazing fees and miners with favorable leasing and royalty arrangements.

Humbug Spires, on BLM land south of Butte, Montana, is an 11,175-acre zone under study for possible designations as a wilderness area. Bob Wick, BLM California, CC BY

Planning 2.0 in the crosshairs

The final Planning 2.0 rule, published on Dec. 16, 2016, is designed to fix some key flaws in western land use planning. Notably, BLM lands are intermingled with private lands and public lands managed by other federal agencies. Many issues, such as wildfire management and invasive species control, cross these boundaries.

Instead of planning at the local or site-specific scale, which does not address the environment’s interconnected nature, the rule directs BLM to plan at the landscape scale – that is, over large areas with “similar environmental characteristics,” such as the Colorado Plateau. Landscape-scale planning necessarily involves federal, state, local and tribal governments.

The rule also requires BLM to seek public input before developing plans. This approach contrasts with NEPA, which requires agencies only to consult with the public after they have identified a few options for action. Environmentalists have repeatedly stalled BLM land use planning through lawsuits when they disagreed with agencies’ proposed alternatives. Planning 2.0 seeks to involve them earlier to help develop alternatives in hope of reducing litigation later.

Many westerners who opposed the rule raised classic federal-versus-state arguments against it. Tom Jankovsky, a Republican commissioner in Garfield County, Colorado, called it “the first step to a totalitarian government, having bureaucrat planners making legislation through administrative process.” The Western Energy Alliance complained that it was an “overreach of federal authority” beyond what FLPMA allowed and prioritized conservation over multiple use.

But other western stakeholders found merit in Planning 2.0. Hunters and anglers, along with other hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, want seats at the table in land use decisions. Some wildlife advocates see the new rules as a great improvement and have called for Congress to ratify Planning 2.0 rather than repeal it. Park County, Colorado’s three Republican commissioners praised the rule for allowing the public to influence plans rather than just react to them.

BLM work to help protect threatened western snowy plovers in Oregon.

One step forward, two steps back

In my view, many critics who have urged Congress to strike down Planning 2.0 want to return to the era when mining companies and ranchers wrote the rules and did so for a narrow range of interests. This strategy is consistent with the Republican Party’s general commitment to deregulation to facilitate business. But repealing the rule is unlikely to have that effect.

Laws like NEPA and FLPMA have brought other interests to the planning table, and Planning 2.0 would get them there earlier to help prevent costly delays that frustrate everyone involved. By excluding their voices, Congress will guarantee the status quo: lengthy court battles after planning decisions are issued. And once a rule is vacated under the Congressional Review Act, agencies cannot issue a new rule that is “substantially the same” unless Congress passes a law authorizing them to do so. The result will be more gridlock and unsound multiple-use management of western public lands.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.