Congress Wants Land Agency to Ignore the Facts and Future

by Robert Glicksman
Alejandro Camacho

February 28, 2017

Imagine you come across a colleague sitting at his desk amid piles of yellowed papers. When you ask what he is working on, he says it's his annual family budget. "What's with all the old papers?" you might ask. "Oh," he replies, "I always work my new budget off my receipts and bills from 1983, the year we married. Some of them are getting pretty hard to read." "Don't you keep updated records?" you might ask. "And haven't your family finances changed significantly over the last 34 years? I know one of your kids is going to college this fall. You've bought a new house, and you and your wife have switched jobs since then." "Well, yes," your colleague says, "but 1983 is the baseline for us." 

No reasonable person would plan a budget this way. Yet it is exactly the approach Republicans in Congress are trying to foist on the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management in their latest effort to wipe away as many Obama-era regulations as possible. 

BLM manages over 245 million acres of our public lands, and effective land management requires careful planning that adjusts to changing conditions. Late last year, the BLM issued a long overdue rule revising its approach to planning, which it had not updated since 1983 (with the exception of one minor adjustment in 2005). 

The agency explained that much has changed in the last 34 years. The condition of lands it manages, the mix of uses taking place on those lands, and threats to their ability to support those uses are all significantly different today than in 1983. Population growth and urbanization in the West, changes in demand for energy sources, and landscape-scale environmental change such as wildfires and invasive species have created novel challenges. At the same time, modern technologies and tools such as geospatial mapping, the Internet, and mobile phones have brought new opportunities to improve the land use planning process. Simply put, BLM wanted to bring its planning into the 21st century. 

Congressional Republicans are having none of it. The Congressional Review Act (CRA), enacted in 1996, allows Congress to overturn recently adopted agency regulations by a majority vote (and the president's signature). On Feb. 7, the House voted to kill the BLM rule, and a bill to follow suit is pending in the Senate. Until the last few weeks, the CRA had been used only once, and with good reason – its consequences are draconian. If Congress rejects an agency rule under the CRA, that version of the regulation dies, but the act also forbids adoption of a substantially similar rule in the future. Overturning the planning rule would therefore require BLM to continue to plan based on stale information and tools – and to do so indefinitely. 

The justification for this eagerness to squelch BLM modernization is the absence of adequate opportunities for state and local participation in land use planning processes. But the rule provides extensive opportunities for public participation in planning efforts by all affected stakeholders, including states and localities, and requires BLM to coordinate with all other agencies and ensure its plans are consistent with those of other federal agencies, state and local governments, and Indian tribes. 

A more likely reason for this rash action is the agency's commitment to making its planning decisions in ways that help protect the ecological values of our public lands. BLM is required by law to manage public lands to allow a range of uses that include wildlife preservation, recreation, and mineral development. It must do so, however, without impairing the lands' ability to provide renewable resources in the future. The new planning regulations were designed to ensure this happened. Probably even more irksome was the agency's long overdue willingness to plan for, manage, and respond more effectively to climate change. Doing so enables the agency to catch up to other federal and state agencies and try to ensure the value of these lands for decades.

Relegating BLM to planning that ignores facts and changing conditions is no way to plan the nation's public lands and resources budget. The BLM's effort to update its planning rule makes perfect sense. Anti-environmental ideology should not be allowed to bury it.

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Robert L. Glicksman is the J. B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law at the George Washington University Law School. He is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform.

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