BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Biden administration officials on Monday sought to dispel worries they want to exclude oil drilling, livestock grazing and other activities from vast government-owned lands, as they faced pushback from Republicans and ranchers and over a contentious proposal to put conservation on equal footing with industry.
The proposal would allow conservationists and others to lease federally owned land to restore it, much the same way oil companies buy leases to drill and ranchers pay to graze cattle. Leases also could be bought on behalf of companies such as oil drillers who want to offset damage to public land by restoring acreage elsewhere.
But more than a century after the U.S. started selling grazing permits and oil and gas leases, the proposal is stirring debate over the best use of public land, primarily in the West. Opponents including Republican lawmakers and agriculture industry representatives are blasting it as a backdoor way to exclude mining, energy development and agriculture.
Tracy Stone-Manning, director of the Bureau of Land Management, told The Associated the proposed changes address rising pressure from climate change and development. She said it would make conservation an "equal" to grazing, drilling and other uses while not interfering with them.
The bureau has a history of industry-friendly policies for the 380,000 square miles (990,000 square kilometers) it oversees, an area more than twice the size of California. It also regulates publicly owned underground minerals, including oil, coal and lithium for renewable energy across more than 1 million square miles (2.5 million square kilometers).
Those holdings put the agency at the center of arguments over how much development should be allowed.
Senior bureau officials on Monday night hosted the first virtual public meeting about the conservation proposal. There was no opportunity for public comment, and questions for officials were screened by the agency. But officials acknowledged receiving numerous queries about grazing and drilling potentially being excluded.
Brian St. George, acting assistant director for the bureau, said the conservation leases would not "lock up land in perpetuity."
"It would have a term, and when that restoration goal is met, the term would lapse," he said.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who tried to block Stone-Manning's 2021 Senate confirmation, says the proposed rule is illegal.
Earlier this month he berated Interior Secretary Deb Haaland over it during an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, saying she was "giving radicals a new tool to shut out the public."
"The secretary wants to make non-use a use," said Barrasso, the ranking Republican on the committee. "She is ... turning federal law on its head."
Stone-Manning told the AP that critics were misreading the rule, and that conservation leases would not usurp existing ones. If grazing is now permitted on a parcel, it could continue. And people could still hunt on the leased property or use it for recreation, she said.
"It makes conservation an equal among the multiple uses that we manage for," Stone-Manning said. "There are rules around how we do solar development. There are rules around how we do oil and gas. There have not been rules around how we deliver on the portions of (federal law) that say, 'Manage for fish and wildlife habitat, manage for clean water.'"
Democratic U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada — where the federal land bureau controls about two thirds of the land — urged the administration to work with ranchers and farmers before finalizing the proposal, which the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said would "upend" land management in the West.
While the bureau previously issued leases for conservation in limited cases, it has never had a dedicated program for it.
Former President Donald Trump tried to ramp up fossil fuel development on bureau lands, but President Joe Biden suspended new oil and gas leasing when he entered office. Biden later revived the deals to win West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's support for last year's climate law.
Biden remains under intense pressure from Manchin and many Republicans to allow more drilling. Such companies currently hold leases across some 37,500 square miles (97,000 square kilometers) of bureau land.
The pending rule also would promote establishing more areas of "critical environmental concern" due to their historic or cultural significance, or their importance for wildlife conservation. More than 1,000 such sites covering about 33,000 square miles (85,000 square kilometers) have been designated previously.
By comparison, about 242,000 square miles (627,000 square kilometers) of bureau land are open to grazing livestock.
Environmentalists have largely embraced the changes, characterizing the proposal as long overdue.
Joel Webster with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of conservation groups and hunting and fishing organizations, said the administration's plan would set up a process to ensure landscapes are considered for conservation without forcing restrictions.
He cautioned, however, that administration officials must ensure a final rule doesn't have unintended consequences.
Another virtual event is slated for June 5 and public meetings are planned for May 25 in Denver; May 30 in Reno, Nevada; and June 1 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.