US overhauls public land use planning; senator vows reversal
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — U.S. government officials on Thursday finalized an overhaul of how they plan for oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing and other activities across public lands in the West. The move by the Bureau of Land Management aims to address longstanding criticism of an often-cumbersome process that dictates development across almost 250 million acres of federal lands, primarily in 12 Western states and the Dakotas.
Administration officials said the changes would improve public involvement and government transparency by adding additional steps to land-use planning.
Members of Congress, industry groups and local officials have raised concerns about the overhaul's practical effects. They've said it will elevate wildlife and environmental preservation above other uses such as energy development and shift decision-making from agency field offices to Washington, D.C.
It updates regulations adopted in 1979.
The Associated Press obtained details prior to Thursday's public announcement.
The timing of the new rule in the Obama administration's last days drew a rebuke from U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, who predicted it would take authority away from local land managers. The Wyoming Republican pledged to work to reverse the action once President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
About 28 percent of Wyoming's land and 65 percent of the minerals beneath its surface are administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
"We need better coordination among state, local and federal land management agencies. Massive landscape-scale plans directed from Washington, D.C., are not the answer," said Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining.
The changes were backed by conservation and sporting groups including Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Joel Webster, the partnership's Western lands director, said the rule would ensure decisions affecting wildlife such as mule deer weren't hobbled by artificial boundaries that separate bureau field offices.
Opponents were "seeing ghosts" with concerns that public involvement would be hurt, he added. Among other changes, alternatives for development would be offered at the front-end of planning instead of well into the process.
Bureau Deputy Director Linda Lance said the intent is to frontload the process so that thorny issues are revealed early. That will reduce the likelihood of lawsuits or the need for substantial revisions down the road, she said.
The federal agency has 160 management plans for the lands and mineral reserves that it oversees. Crafting those plans currently takes eight years on average.
"The hope is we are going to shave years off the process, not days," Lance said.