Congress moves to restrict public input on public land planning

Another Congressional Review Act moves forward, this time thwarting progress at the Bureau of Land Management.

Public land use is still managed by a 1983 planning process. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Hunter
Public land use is still managed by a 1983 planning process. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Hunter

Hundreds of sportsmen, outdoor business owners and supporters of the great outdoors rallied in states across the West last week, raising their voice in support of protecting public lands. Congress responded by moving to restrict citizen input on public land use planning.

The House of Representatives voted Tuesday to roll back a rule that gives local citizens a greater voice in the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) planning process, a process that directs how 245 million acres of public land are utilized.

“Our citizens and local economies depend on these lands for sustainable multiple uses, from outdoor recreation to livestock grazing to mineral exploration and development,” Mike Brazell, Commissioner for Park County, Colorado, wrote in a public comment letter to BLM. “This early public involvement will hopefully help resolve conflicts and produce RMPs [Resource Management Plans] that better reflect the needs of our citizens as well as others who use the public lands and have a stake in their future.”

Brazell’s views are widely shared in the west. Many local communities support the planning rule that the House voted to roll back, counting it as a tool to strengthen their voice in land use planning.

The rule was also hoped to make land use planning more flexible and responsive. Prior to the new rule, land use plans required an average of eight years to complete.

“Too often, by the time we’ve completed a plan, community priorities have evolved and conditions on the ground have changed, as well,” then-BLM director Neil Kornze said in a press release announcing the final rule.

Finalized in December 2016, the Final Land Use Planning Rule, or “Planning 2.0,” is the product of over two years of public input and more than 3,000 public comments. The rule makes BLM’s land use planning process faster and more inclusive, giving all users —including hunters, anglers, ranchers, scientists, hikers, local governments, and energy industries — more opportunities to weigh in early on in planning.

“BLM took meaningful steps … to accommodate requests from local governments and the public in reworking land-use planning,” Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said in a press release. “Now, Congress is taking steps to reduce agency transparency and limit the public’s ability to have a say in how their public lands are managed. While a few concerns might remain, Congress is going about this the wrong way.”

The House’s Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution, which passed 234–186, will force BLM to revert to its 1983 planning process, which does not include comments from the public until late in the process. And despite the clear demand for improvements, under the CRA, the agency will not be allowed to update its land use planning process without congressional approval.

“Nothing in that rule can be re-instated in the next administration unless a new law by Congress is passed,” Shaleas Harrison of the Wyoming Wilderness Association, said in a press statement. “So many of the good provisions of the planning rule, such as having more comment time and having the public comment more often, [are] not going to happen. And it really sets the BLM back decades.”

Sponsors of the resolution to reverse Planning 2.0 have stated that the rule does not allow for input from local governments, but this position is not shared by many counties or by the hunting and fishing groups engaged in the rulemaking process. Opposition to the rule appears to be primarily backed by state farm bureaus and other agricultural interests.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has come out strongly against the rule, saying it transfers power to Washington, D.C. In a joint press release with Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), Murkowski said the rule will create “confusion and uncertainty” and takes power away from local governments.

The Senate will consider a companion resolution as soon as next week.