U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, a Democrat representing New Mexico, accused Republican members of the House of Representatives of trying to mislead the American public on Thursday during a House Committee on Natural Resources meeting focused on a proposed public lands rule that would allow for conservation leasing on Bureau of Land Management lands.
“I find it very upsetting, Mr. Chairman, when I see the resources of this body of Congress, the people’s House, being used to put forward narratives and misinformation that, in my mind, is intended to scare the American people,” she said. “Because it’s just simply not true and much of what I’ve heard here today is just not true. This is really about balancing the needs of our public lands.”
U.S. Rep. John Curtis, a Republican from Utah, has introduced legislation that would require the BLM to withdraw its proposed rule that aims to set up a conservation leasing program.
“The BLM’s proposed rule would undermine the livelihoods of Utah’s farmers, ranchers, recreation businesses, and more,” he said in a press release in May after introducing the legislation. “In a state that has so much natural beauty to share, this rule attempts to lock up those precious lands that should be open and accessible to the public.”
Republicans in the House of Representatives as well as witnesses that included governors from several western states as well as industry groups such as the Western Energy Alliance presented conservation leasing as something that would restrict access to public lands for recreation, harm national security and destroy economic opportunities by allowing people to lease lands for conservation purposes with very little oversight.
Committee Chairman U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Arkansas, said that the BLM is “threatening to upend its multiple use mandate and the western way of life.”
“The rule would broadly allow the BLM to lease lands under new and vaguely defined conservation leases, incorporate new standards when evaluating traditional multiple use decisions and expedite designations of new areas of critical environmental concerns,” he said.
But, Stansbury pointed out, New Mexico has already implemented a conservation leasing program for state lands without any of those consequences. In fact, she said, the state has seen record-breaking oil and gas production.
“The sort of fear mongering that was asserted in this morning’s hearing was just completely baseless,” she said in response to questions from NM Political Report during a press conference.
She said the rule will allow for mitigation activities to offset the impacts of activities like fossil fuel extraction.
Stansbury said she thinks science will show that the rule has a net positive impact for states like New Mexico that have large amounts of BLM lands. She said it will “help us better manage those landscapes at scale to maintain their ecological integrity and intactness.”
In the press conference, she said the BLM’s proposed rule will also allow regional BLM offices to be able to protect lands that are culturally important, such as the areas around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
“So it’s one more tool in the conservation toolbox,” she said. “And contrary to the kind of narrative that we’re seeing spun right now…this is really just an opportunity to expand conservation and protection of public lands alongside their use for other purposes.”
Keegan King, a member of the Pueblo of Acoma and the founder and CEO of the Native Lands Institute, said many of the lands managed by the BLM in New Mexico are already leased for oil and gas development.
“I think what the rule does is really tries to put conservation and Indigenous voices on more of an equal footing with the development that’s already taking place,” he said.
Like Stansbury, King referenced Chaco Canyon. He said more than 90 percent of the BLM lands in the Farmington Field Office, which is where Chaco Canyon is located, have been leased for oil and gas extraction.
“We’re really talking about what is leftover and how can we best preserve these wild places and these places of significant cultural value,” he said.
The rule will not impact existing leases, nor is it intended to limit grazing or recreational activities on public lands.
Stansbury read from the Federal Register when a reporter asked about impacts to grazing.
“The actual proposed rule text actually says that the conservation leasing would establish conservation leases for a period up to 10 years for very specific purposes, which includes for restoration of land, mitigation, essentially, for conservation and restoration activities,” she said. “And then it goes on to say very explicitly, and this is a direct quote, ‘this provision is not intended to provide a mechanism for precluding other uses, such as grazing, mining, and recreation conservation leases should not disturb existing authorizations, valid existing rights, or state or tribal land use management.’ So the rule itself has already been very clear about this. It is not intended to disturb other purposes. It’s a tool to enable leasing activities on BLM lands to improve conservation activities as part of restoring intact landscapes.”
The BLM announced on Thursday that it is extending the public comment period for the proposed conservation leasing. Public comments can be submitted through July 5.
“The proposed Public Lands Rule is essential to our work, to ensuring we can respond to changes on the landscape,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a press release. “We appreciate the useful public input we’ve already received through five public meetings and the first 75 days of the comment period. This extension will allow us to continue to work with the public to make sure that the final rule is durable and effective.”