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Trump administration to stop collecting money from companies that damage public lands

Policy change is part of a plan to fast-track corporate exploitation of public lands and resources.

The Department of the Interior plans to make compensatory mitigation voluntary for companies that operate on public lands. CREDIT: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images
The Department of the Interior plans to make compensatory mitigation voluntary for companies that operate on public lands. CREDIT: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will no longer require oil and gas companies, land developers, and other companies to pay into government funds set up to offset damage they do to natural resources and wildlife habitats when operating on public lands.

Prior to the Trump administration’s change in policy, the BLM mandated that companies offset the impacts of their activities on public lands through programs such as funding the restoration and protection of wetlands and other habitats. The off-site “compensatory mitigation” practice will now be voluntary.

The new policy, outlined in a BLM instruction memo issued Tuesday, states that “in no circumstance may BLM agree to accept a monetary contribution for the implementation of compensatory mitigation.” Under limited circumstances, the BLM said it will consider voluntary proposals for compensatory mitigation.

The BLM memo “is part of a wave of deregulation that is aimed at removing requirements to care for the land and fast-tracking industrial and corporate exploitation of public lands and resources,” Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, told ThinkProgress.

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Previous policies required federal agencies such as the BLM to avoid and minimize potential environmental impacts to public lands. The Trump administration has already sought to dismantle the “avoidance” and “minimization” parts of the policy in various ways such as undoing the BLM’s greater sage grouse plan, said Molvar, whose group works to protect and restore watersheds and wildlife in the western United States.

Under Trump, the BLM wants to reclassify millions of acres as fit for oil, gas and mineral development, which scientists and conservationists say will continue the fragmentation of the sage grouse, whose population has plummeted by up to 90 percent over the past 150 years. In May, the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department, arguing that the Trump administration is not doing enough to protect the sage grouse and other wildlife habitats and populations.

With its memo issued Tuesday, the BLM is now taking the next step by trying to get rid of the compensatory mitigation requirement as well, Molvar emphasized.

The BLM manages more than 247 million acres of public land, which constitutes one-eighth of the landmass of the country. The agency also oversees the leasing of the minerals located on this land.

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Compensatory mitigation describes programs that allow private developers   to offset the known impacts of their development activities on public lands. Similar to the theory of carbon offsets — where a reduction of emissions in one part of the world supposedly compensates for harmful emissions elsewhere — off-site compensatory mitigation allows developers to make up for their destruction of public lands by paying for mitigation work elsewhere.

According to Molvar, compensatory mitigation is no substitute for sound public lands decision-making where government officials prevent environmental impacts from happening in the first place.

But in cases where the government applies the appropriate level of environmental safeguards and the impacts are still unavoidable, corporate users of public lands “should absolutely be required to compensate for the damage that they do to public lands and wildlife,” he said.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been a vocal opponent of compensatory mitigation since taking office. “Some people would call [compensatory mitigation] extortion. I call it un-American,” Zinke told a June 2017 meeting of the Western Governors’ Association.

Molvar believes it all comes down to a proper land ethic, which the Trump administration is rapidly moving to discard. “It’s important to have responsible stewardship of federal public lands and responsible management of the habitat that supports its wildlife populations,” he said.

According to Bloomberg, the BLM will still consider environmental impacts when reviewing permit applications to conduct work on public lands. “We still in every decision we make say ‘Have we avoided impacts? Have we minimized impacts?’” Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told Bloomberg in an interview.

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“We will still do that but when it comes to doing compensatory mitigation off-site, we will say that needs to be voluntary,” Bernhardt said.

Mark Salvo, vice president of landscape conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, views the BLM memo as just the latest attack from the Trump administration on public lands.

“Ignoring the Bureau of Land Management’s authority to require mitigation for development impacts is not only bad for our environment and public lands, it’s bad business,” Salvo said Wednesday in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.

Mitigation helps ensure consistent, responsible multiple use of public lands and resources, according to Salvo. “Waiving mitigation requirements,”  he said, “threatens to create new conflict and delay that could have been avoided under the policy the administration has just discarded.”