How Congress Just Rolled Back Public Input On Public Lands

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“The attack against Planning 2.0 is the thin end of a very ugly edge [of] a really aggressive campaign to roll back not just protections for our public lands, but the very idea of public lands,” says Lukas Ross, a public lands campaigner for Friends of the Earth.Bill Clark / Getty Images

Update: On March 27, President Trump signed H.J. Res 44 (Representative Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming), the joint resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act to repeal the Bureau of Land Management’s Planning 2.0 Rule.

A congressional move to rescind the Bureau of Land Management’s “Planning 2.0” rule is on its way to President Trump’s desk. The Senate voted on March 7 to approve H.J. Res. 44, which passed in February, to overturn the rule.

Developed by the BLM over the past four years, Planning 2.0 updates the agency’s 24-year-old process for planning and approving mining, drilling, grazing, and other business activities on nearly 250 million acres of public lands in 12 western states, including Alaska. The revamped planning process gave the public — including hikers, fishermen, hunters, and other outdoors sports enthusiasts — an earlier opportunity to comment on how a parcel of public land should be used. But not for long.

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The $650 billion outdoor recreation sector needs healthy wilderness, wetlands, and waterways to prosper, but “won’t have the say at the front of the process that we were hoping for” if President Trump signs away Planning 2.0, says Jessica Wahl, spokesperson for the Outdoor Industry Association. “It really matters at the front end. It avoids litigation. It helps land managers understand all the stakeholders and where our assets are.”

How Congress Is Preparing to Roll Back Public Input On Public Lands

Under the BLM’s older rules for land-use planning, public comment usually starts after, rather than before, a proposal for developing a public land parcel has been drafted. In practice, this has often given timber and mineral-extraction industries, farmers, and ranchers — along with their allies in local and state governments — an advantage in setting the priorities for how public land is used. Fans of hunting, fishing, hiking, and other activities, who often prize undeveloped public lands, have had their voices left out of the early planning process in that original system.

Planning 2.0 acknowledges these diverging opinions, says Leah Baker, the head of the BLM’s Division of Decision Support, Planning, and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) by creating “two new points in the process where we’d engage with the public, and consult with state and local governments and [other] stakeholders.” Essentially, it was a way for all of the people who use the land, and all of the industries who make money off of it — including the outdoor industry — to weigh in equally.

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Planning for Conservation

The House and Senate moves to quash Planning 2.0 have dismayed environmentalists. The rule “included a lot of beneficial-sounding language for how to establish habitat connectivity,” said wildlife biologist Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project. These corridors are crucial to ensuring that wildlife can shift their ranges as climate change alters prey species, water supplies, weather, and other ecosystem conditions, he said.

“It also highlighted some new designations that BLM land managers could use to protect areas that were largely undeveloped,” Molvar adds, by giving them flexibility in basing the boundaries of a land use plan on the natural contours of an ecosystem, however large or small.

“In our history, our plans have been based on our smallest unit of administration,” which at the BLM is the field office, explains Baker. “But over the years some offices have found it makes sense to slightly enlarge a plan” to the district level or across state lines, she says, “or to go even smaller,” such as a 2015 BLM plan for managing around 1,400 acres of wetland near Eugene, Oregon.

Planning 2.0 simply put this “best practice,” into writing, says Baker. If it’s overturned, land-use managers may still have the option of following it on an ad hoc basis, but it won’t streamline the process.

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The Case for Ranchers, Miners, and Timber Companies

Opponents of Planning 2.0 included dozens of national and state-based lobby groups, from the American Petroleum Institute to the Utah Wool Growers Association. Their objections essentially fall under one category: Locals should get to decide how the land is used. “Our objections to the BLM 2.0 planning rule were many,” says Luke Popovich, vice president for external communications at the National Mining Association, by email. “But basically it would have minimized the input from local stakeholders, including ranchers, miners, timber companies, and certainly the states and local governments.”

These worries were echoed by Brian Namey, public affairs director for the National Association of Counties. “Our main concern with Planning 2.0 was that it could have diluted county input into federal land management decisions,” Namey says, also by email. “Local consultation in the federal rule-making process is important because counties know firsthand the impacts of rules on the ground and, in many cases, play a key role in implementing them.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chair of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, who introduced the resolution to overturn the rule in the Senate, stated that Planning 2.0 “would have harmed grazing, timber, energy development, mineral production, and even recreation on federal lands,” although she did not describe how. (Senator Murkowski was not available to speak with Men’s Journal for this article, according to Nicole Daigle, the committee’s communications director.)

The Loophole That Might Make These Changes Permanent

The Congressional Review Act, the 1996 law being used by the House and Senate to overturn this and other Obama-era regulations, prohibits agencies from revisiting rules that Congress disapproves under the act. That leaves only one option for changing the BLM planning process in the future: Congressional legislation. In that scenario, the outdoor recreation industry is counting on hikers, climbers, fishermen, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts to let Congress and the Trump administration know they are paying attention. “People are engaged, and we’re seeing more awareness of how important some of these plans are,” Wahl says, “and that Congress using these crazy tools to roll the process back is not in line with what public opinion.”

Along with Planning 2.0, Congress has taken CRA-enabled aim at other Obama-era rules linked to energy and public lands, such as a moratorium on coal leasing pending an environmental review of the program, a curb on methane flaring at gas wells, and a rule that stopped coal firms from dumping mine waste into streams.

“The Congressional Review Act is an incredibly blunt and dangerous instrument,” said Lukas Ross, a public lands campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “The attack against Planning 2.0 is the thin end of a very ugly edge [of] a really aggressive campaign to roll back not just protections for our public lands, but the very idea of public lands,” Ross said. “All these attacks are fundamentally designed to ensure the private benefit of a very narrow range of interests on our public lands.” It will be up to the public and conservation groups to push back hard on these attempts, he said.

Molvar agreed. “I think you’re going to see that as the federal agencies increasingly try to dismantle environmental protections, and frustrate efforts to restore the land, groups like ours are going to ramp up efforts to hold them accountable through the legal system.”

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