July 6, 2023

Equal footing: Conservation leasing proponents say proposal will place the environment on the same level as other land uses

A new proposal calls for leasing public lands for conservation purposes.

Joseph Yaroch visits the public lands in southern New Mexico twice weekly to hike or run.

Though he says he supports the overall concept of multiple use for public lands, he is concerned about erosion and poor soil quality resulting from land uses.

Yaroch primarily visits areas around Picacho Peak and the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, which have received poor scores for rangeland health.

“Placing conservation on equal footing with other uses will strengthen the ability of the Bureau of Land Management to improve the health of the soil and vegetation in these areas. This will help preserve the integrity of these areas for generations to come,” he said in comments submitted to the BLM regarding conservation leasing.

Yaroch submitted one of more than 151,000 public comments regarding the proposed conservation leasing. The BLM will now review the comments and could make changes prior to releasing a final rule. 

The public comment period closed on Wednesday and the vast majority of comments received favored conservation leasing, according to an analysis by the Center for Western Priorities.

While the Center for Western Priorities found 92 percent of the comments supported conservation leasing, many New Mexico residents involved in agriculture, hunting and extractive industries expressed concerns over the possible changes.

Conservation leasing is a somewhat controversial proposal that proponents say would place the environment on equal footing with extractive industries and agriculture but opponents say could hamper economic development and limit access to public lands.

The vast majority of BLM lands are managed for either extraction or livestock grazing. A 2016 analysis conducted by the Wilderness Society found that 90 percent of BLM land is open for oil and gas drilling. Meanwhile, about 60 percent of BLM lands are leased for grazing, according to an analysis of agency data conducted by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“As a proud New Mexican and public lands advocate, I am thrilled to see the overwhelmingly positive response to the new Public Lands Rule, which prioritizes the protection of our public lands, cultural resources, and wildlife,” Keegan King, the CEO of Native Land Institute, said in a press release. “This rule represents a significant step forward in our efforts to combat the growing impacts of climate change while preserving our cherished outdoor spaces for future generations. I am grateful for the tireless advocacy of our communities and tribal nations who have worked hard to ensure that these lands are protected and accessible to all.”

He said the BLM changing to focus on conservation, recreation and protection of cultural resources will help economies in rural communities that rely on public lands. 

Under the proposed rulemaking, entities like Tribes and nonprofit organizations could enter into 10-year agreements to work on conservation projects on sections of federal lands managed by the BLM.

Related: What to know about federal conservation rulemaking

The conservation leases will not end any existing leases. That means areas already leased for grazing will not be shut off from grazing. However, grazing could be precluded on lands where conservation leases exist that do not have any currently. The same thing goes for oil and gas leasing or other mineral extraction.

“The proposed BLM conservation rule will give a new tool to land managers, the public, and state and Tribal governments to engage in collaborative land stewardship that aims to caretake watersheds, reduce wildfire risks, improve habitat resilience, provide for responsible development, and expand recreation opportunities,” Jennifer Black, an Artemis Sportswomen ambassador who lives near Albuquerque, said in a press release. “The new rule is not a quick or easy fix but encourages robust dialogue—and hopefully action— between those who use our public lands. Multiple uses of land, water, and wildlife for generations to come is clearly worth discussion.”

As an eastern New Mexico rancher, Bret Riley is no stranger to conservation. He has worked to protect the endangered lesser prairie chicken and serves as the co-chair of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Landowner Alliance.

While he said entire ecosystems benefit from conservation principles being incorporated into land management, Riley expressed some concerns about the conservation leasing in his comments.

One concern he expressed was how the conservation leases will be prioritized given the BLM staff’s heavy workload. He also said that conservation leasing should require a National Environmental Policy Act analysis, which can be a lengthy process and typically involves public input.

“Livestock producers with federal grazing permits have a wealth of knowledge about the local ecosystem and lands. The rule should make clear that formal consultation, cooperation and coordination will take place for all conservation leases that are proposed within grazing allotments,” Riley said in his submitted comments. “This will not only strengthen efforts, but also create local champions for conservation efforts, making the projects more successful long-term.” 

Grazing on public lands

Agriculture producers are among the voices who submitted comments that opposed the proposed conservation leasing. These groups are concerned that the rule could limit their ability to graze cattle or other livestock on federal lands.

Otero County Cattleman’s Association President Gary Stone described the proposed rulemaking as the BLM “uselessly and carelessly spending taxpayer dollars and using this proposed rule as a thinly veiled attack on the lawful users of the BLM managed lands.” 

Some of the rules supporters say that ranchers have experienced undo preference, resulting in damage to ecosystems.

The New Mexico Wildlife Federation said in its submitted comments that “meeting that responsibility on the ground will demand an immediate shift of agency philosophy and action.”

“Industry groups – primarily grazing and mining interests – have had an outsized voice in the management of BLM lands for decades,” New Mexico Wildlife Federation Executive Director Jesse Deubel stated in comments submitted on behalf of the organization. “While ranching interests proclaim that they’re the true stewards of the land, the reality on far too much BLM land in the West tells a different story.”

The organization included a picture of cattle on overgrazed BLM lands near Las Cruces.

“Many permittees also act as though BLM lands are their personal property – a misconception reinforced by their ability to pass grazing permits down to their heirs and sell permits as part of their real estate holdings when ranches change hands,” Deubel wrote. “It’s also common in New Mexico to see permittees take steps to hinder or block public access to BLM lands so they may treat them even more as their own private property. Meanwhile, the fees that permittees pay for grazing on BLM lands are far below market rates, a situation that cries out for immediate redress.”

The organization states that the rule needs more clarity on how the conservation leasing would work, such as whether ranchers could block conservation leases, how much a conservation lease could cost and whether a NEPA analysis would be required for the conservation lease.

The New Mexico Wildlife Federation also called for reduced grazing due to worsening climate change and as a way of improving habitat for animals like quail.

Outfitters and guides express concerns

It’s not just the agricultural community that opposes the rule. The New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides also expressed opposition. 

“The rule will prevent outfitting on conservation lease lands, have significant economic ramifications, radically change the BLM’s existing multiple use structure, and is likely to create incentive for non-profit anti-grazing/anti-hunting organizations to enter into conservation leases with the intent to prevent public access,” Kerrie Cox Romero, the executive director of the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, wrote in a letter submitted on behalf of the organization.

One fear the organization expressed is that nonprofit organizations that oppose hunting could lease lands for conservation purposes and close them off to hunting for a period of time.

State officials support the rule

While some groups and residents may have concerns about the impacts, many New Mexico officials say that the conservation leasing will help improve habitat and address climate change.

Conservation leasing is not new in New Mexico. 

State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard implemented a conservation leasing program for state lands and has testified about it in front of Congressional committees in relation to the BLM proposed rule.

But, Garcia Richard said in her submitted comments, there should be some changes to the proposal. Namely, she thinks states and local governments should also have the ability to enter into conservation leases on federal lands.

“One key objective of the rule is to advance ecosystem health on a landscape level. In many Western states, such as New Mexico, land ownership is checkerboarded. The ability to partner with state agencies and local governments could provide significant conservation opportunities and avoid unnecessary fragmentation where conservation leasing on BLM land could further a specific wildlife or other land management objective,” she wrote.

Related: Stansbury addresses what she calls misinformation about the BLM’s conservation leasing proposal

New Mexico will see greater impacts from the proposed rule than many other states because of the portion of the lands owned by the federal government.

Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Department Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst stated in written comments that about 17 percent of the state’s surface land area is managed by the BLM.

“These lands provide innumerable benefits to our state, including habitat for wildlife, places for people to hike, hunt, camp, fish, and connect with nature, and tangible economic benefits,” she said. “They also provide a unique opportunity to implement nature-based solutions to address and mitigate climate change impacts such as the droughts, storms, and catastrophic wildfires that are causing rapid changes across New Mexico.”

She highlighted that historically the BLM has prioritized resource extraction over other uses.

“While extractive uses are an important component of New Mexico’s economy, considering the challenges we face, it is time to implement a more balanced approach to the use of this public resource, which is why it is appropriate to place conservation, restoration, and non-extractive resources on equal footing,” she wrote.

Cottrell Propst said that the proposed rule will create a framework enabling the BLM to “better respond to climate change impacts, conserve intact landscapes, restore degraded habitat, and seize opportunities to sequester carbon.”

At the same time, she recommended some changes to the proposed rule, including recognizing that landscape restoration can help prevent degradation and permanent impairment. She said the rule should “expressly recognize the important role of habitat connectivity and wildlife corridors in achieving ecological resilience by creating a clear opportunity to enhance and restore migratory corridors and stopover sites, habitats for Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), and aquatic resources on public lands.”

Cottrell Propst also pushed for increased Tribal consultation.

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, also submitted comments in support of the proposed rule.

“Our public lands contain vital diverse ecological resources in our country that must be preserved,” he wrote. “Preservation of these resources and lands will not only play a large role in ensuring the broadest possible ecosystem health and wildlife diversity in our nation, but ensure the preservation of the engine that drives the outdoor economy. America’s protected public lands provide outdoor experiences sought by local residents and visitors worldwide, and help to build strong local and state economies and small businesses.”

25 Republican state representatives file opposition comment

Twenty-five Republican members of New Mexico’s House of Representatives say they are concerned about the rule and believe that if it is implemented it will harm longstanding partnerships that the BLM has with organizations such as the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts and the various soil and water conservation districts in the state.

They further say that conservation leases “appear to create a new process designed to prevent multiple uses of our public lands.”