Bear Butte, as seen in 2020 from a vantage point within the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Fort Meade Recreation Area near Sturgis. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)
As a sportsman who enjoys getting out on public lands and waters, I was heartened when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management recently released a proposed Public Lands Rule that elevates conservation as one of the multiple uses on federal land.
Our state is a small player in this issue, which has greater importance in other western states. BLM manages 274,000 surface acres in South Dakota, about a half percent of the state’s 49.5 million acres.
In a press release, Noem said the “proposed rule will result in poorly managed federal lands, which will devastate conservation and management efforts, harm our wildlife, slow economic growth and endanger public safety.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
What the proposed rule actually does is manage the land in a balanced way, so we all benefit. BLM’s mission has been to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
Unfortunately, for far too long, the BLM’s emphasis has been on “productivity” instead of “health.”
Over the past few years, cheatgrass increasingly has choked out native species, development has fragmented wildlife migration corridors, and our lands and communities are put at risk by wildfires.
All of this threatens the health of our state’s fish and wildlife populations — as well as our economic health. Last year, hunting, fishing, trapping and wildlife-viewing contributed $1.3 billion to South Dakota’s economy. If our wildlife populations dwindle, that has a direct negative impact on our economic fortunes.
The newly-proposed BLM rule makes conservation an equal use on public lands — on par with energy development, grazing, timber harvests or recreation. Its aim is to improve and maintain the health of the lands and ecosystems so they can adapt and thrive.
It is what Congress envisioned when it passed the Federal Lands Planning and Management Act that directed the agency to develop lands in a thoughtful, responsible way to ensure that future generations could continue to work and recreate on these lands indefinitely.
The new rule directs the agency to identify and prioritize landscapes in need of restoration by working with tribal partners, state and local agencies, conservation groups and other stakeholders. It requires management practices to ensure that the restoration work is improving the health of public lands and waters.
The bureau’s Public Lands Rule is a common-sense, long-overdue proposal that all of us who love public lands should embrace.
The rule is not intended to stop development on public lands. It simply more broadly applies to the land health standards and objectives the grazing community has had to follow.
The rule proposes an innovative plan to offer conservation leases that leverages private investment in restoring public lands. This allows the BLM to partner with Indigenous leaders, conservation groups, energy developers and others to improve the health of wildlife habitat.
Conservation leasing could also be used as an important tool for compensatory mitigation. For example, if an energy company wanted to compensate for development in one area, it could buy conservation leases in a separate area in need of restoration.
The bureau’s Public Lands Rule is a common-sense, long-overdue proposal that all of us who love public lands should embrace. This doesn’t alter the BLM’s “multiple use” mission and won’t stop energy development, mining, grazing or timber harvests.
It encourages more responsible development so the land can thrive well into the future. It also provides more opportunity for tribal and local communities to have more input into the way their public lands are managed.
The benefits of such a policy are numerous, and unfortunately Gov. Noem is making it a partisan, political soundbite.
Not only will wildlife habitat be restored, but it will also reduce wildfire risks, help control the spread of invasive species, improve livestock forage and enhance opportunities for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation.
South Dakotans love our wildlife and sporting heritage. We believe in restoring and safeguarding the lands and waters that are critical for future generations to enjoy hunting, fishing, camping and hiking.
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