Gov. Kristi Noem testifies June 15, 2023, to the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources in Washington, D.C. (Committee livestream)
U.S. House Republicans and GOP Govs. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Mark Gordon of Wyoming teamed up Thursday to rail against the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed rule to allow conservation leases on federal lands.
Noem and Gordon joined the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee for about half of a 4 1/2 hour hearing that saw Republican members raise familiar objections to the BLM’s proposal that would treat conservation as a use on the same level as mining, oil and gas development or livestock grazing.
The proposed rule would create a conservation leasing system, similar to how the agency divides land for extractive uses. The rule’s supporters — many Democrats and environmental groups — say it provides an important tool to better manage lands threatened by climate change, without significantly affecting use by ranchers, miners, energy companies or other federal lands users.
But congressional Republicans, especially those from the Western states that are home to most BLM lands, have said the rule would undermine the agency’s mandate to provide grazing, mining and oil and gas opportunities.
U.S. Rep. John Curtis, a Utah Republican, introduced a two-line bill last month that was the subject of Thursday’s hearing. Nineteen Republican joined as co-sponsors.
Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican, said the bill was unlikely to become law, but hinted Republicans would seek to insert language into a spending bill to prevent the rule from being implemented.
Noem: Plan is ‘dangerous’
Noem, a former U.S. House member who sat on that committee, endorsed her former colleagues’ arguments Thursday, saying that formal conservation leases were unnecessary when ranchers and others are already using conservation practices.
“Conservation is already incredibly a part of every single management practice that happens on BLM land,” Noem said. “To go out there and to create mechanisms such as a conservation lease that can be bought by third parties — not even necessarily by people in our own country — and give them access and authority over these lands, it’s dangerous.”
Noem and Gordon were not the only GOP governors from Western states to voice disapproval of the rule this week.
The two were joined by Govs. Brad Little of Idaho, Greg Gianforte of Montana and Joe Lombardo of Nevada on a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Wednesday asking her to withdraw the proposal.
Democrats slam ‘hyper-partisan’ panel
Many of the committee’s Democrats didn’t attend the panel with Noem and Gordon, joining the hearing halfway through.
Curtis said he was angry about his colleagues’ absence, which he compared to federal bureaucrats seeking to manage Western lands without input from the people who live there.
“I’m sitting here and having a hard time … having my head not explode,” he said. “There is one member across the aisle at this hearing at the beginning and two total now. This is the same reflection of those on the East Coast who like to come to us in the West and tell us how to manage our lands.”
California Democrat Jared Huffman spoke briefly to call the governors’ panel a “hyper-partisan performance masquerading as a legislative hearing.”
“On the off-chance that there may be a few people watching at home who don’t get all their information refracted through the kaleidoscope of right-wing media, I would just like them to know that now every Western state is hyped up on anti-government conspiracy politics,” he said, adding that California supported the BLM proposal.
Several Republicans on the committee said the rule shows BLM’s misunderstanding of how people in the West manage their lands.
“This is going to have incredibly negative, unintended consequences that the people in Washington, D.C., don’t understand,” Wyoming’s Harriet Hageman said. “They should not be making policies like this sitting in their air-conditioned offices here.”
But in a video conference call that a conservation group held with reporters following the hearing, Danielle Murray, the senior policy and legal director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, said Noem was not the best messenger for that idea.
With 275,000 acres managed by the BLM, South Dakota accounts for just more than .1% of the agency’s 245 million acres nationwide, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
“The majority made a lot of points about … Eastern states trying to tell Western states how to manage their lands,” Murray said. “Under their own calculus, Gov. Noem shouldn’t have been there.”
Supporters of the proposal said Republican alarms were without merit.
“The sort of fearmongering asserted in this morning’s hearing was just completely baseless,” New Mexico Democrat Melanie Stansbury said.
Public comment extended
Republicans on the panel also criticized the BLM for the agency’s strategy for public meetings after publishing the proposed rule.
The agency held two online meetings and in-person forums in Denver; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Reno, Nevada. None were in a rural area, Republicans noted.
They also said the 75-day public comment period was too short.
Following the governors, the committee questioned a second panel that included Nada Wolff Culver, the BLM’s deputy director for policy and programs. Culver said the agency would extend the public comment period for 15 days. The new deadline is July 5.
The rule would only put conservation on the same level as extractive industries, Culver said. It would not exclude other uses, she said.
“Every day the BLM seeks a careful balancing across many uses and resources to steward the public lands for all,” she said. “The proposed rule would help guide balanced management in a manner that does not elevate one use over others.”
Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert asked directly if the rule would block grazing access and if the rule would ban the use of mechanical forest thinning.
Culver answered that grazing leases would not be affected, and that mechanical thinning is a generally accepted conservation technique.
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