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Where Will the Cattle Graze?

New BLM Public Lands Rule

Over 245 million acres of land in the US is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These federal lands are used for many purposes including mining, timber harvesting, livestock grazing, energy production, conservation, hunting, fishing and other recreational activities. As of April 18, 2024, the new Public Lands rule aims to reorganize these multiple-use lands to prioritize conservation efforts across the country.

The rule is highly controversial.  Individual industries are quite dependent on public land use and in turn, western states are fueled by incomes generated from multi-use parameters. While many hail the rule as a win, the culmination of decades of effort on the part of conservation groups, others fear this could undermine domestic economic growth.

What is the New BLM Public Lands Rule?

The Public Lands Rule is intended to “safeguard the health of our lands” by creating and managing regulations to protect and restore water and wildlife habitats by using science, data, and indigenous knowledge.  By elevating conservation on the list of land uses, current regulations will be adapted to include practices that combat climate change, preserve culture, and consider land restoration as opposed to primarily sustainability. At the top of the list are Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.

While it's clear that protection and restoration efforts are supported, exactly how this will be accomplished is the question raising concern in the agricultural sector as well as at the state level.  Will these multi-use lands become single-use lands and close their doors to ranchers, miners, and recreational use businesses? And if so, what will happen to the rural economies that survive because of these industries and who play a vital role in the domestic flow of money?

Grazing Leases in Jeopardy

According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, at least 60 agricultural entities have filed protests against the rule. The primary fear is that ranchers will lose much needed grazing lands. If grazing permits are lost it will certainly impact the $2 billion in economic output from livestock grazed on BLM land. For many western states, cows and sheep live on ranches that are made up of deeded land as well as BLM grazing leases. A 50,000 acre ranch might be made up of 20,000 acres of deeded land and 30,000 acres of BLM land. A 30,000 acre loss would be significant to an operation. If these leases are not reissued ranches will need to secure private land leases or downsize their herds.

As it is now, the Bureau of Land Management can dictate how many animals graze on public lands and how long they are allowed to graze.  Ideally, ranching will be factored into the new and modified regulation definitions, along with age old land conservation grazing methods, new data and innovative technology. Cattle ranchers depend on healthy land in order to build healthy animal herds and have long employed rotational and flash grazing methods, wildfire reduction practices, and invasive species management. Worst case scenario, the already scaled down cattle herds of the United States will continue to remain smaller until adequate grazing land is secured.

Rural Economic Challenges

Over $1trillion in economic output is generated by recreational activities in the United States every year, with an estimated 5 million people employed by these industries. National and state parks, open spaces and forest land is used for everything including camping, rock climbing, fishing, backpacking, hunting, and off-roading vehicle use.  And, many small town communities rely on their specific tourism season to generate cash flow for the entire year. As with grazing, the BLM dictates how many elk or deer licenses are issued and they dole out a certain number of permits for other recreational activities like boating, rafting or back country hiking.

With the new Public Land Rule prioritizing conservation, these activities may also come under scrutiny and present new income challenges for rural communities.  On one hand, areas of cultural significance will be much more protected and continue to draw or even increase the amount of tourists.  On the other hand, beloved fishing and hiking areas may fall under a new scope of regulations making them less accessible to the public, therefore impacting the small town economy.

The same can be said for the oil and gas industries. Since 2022 more than one quarter of our oil and natural gas supplies have come from operations conducted on federal land. Of the 245 million acres managed by the BLM, 90% are used by these energy industries. And, rural economies depend on these jobs and the cash flow they bring, as do many states. Here too, if land once usable for oil and gas mining is no longer available, the U.S. stands to lose valuable products as well as economic momentum.  If it is not produced here, will we look abroad to secure supplies? Oil and gas are responsible for 2.6 million jobs. And, it’s believed that for every 1 person directly employed by oil and gas, 2.8 other jobs are supported; from construction, to hospitality, to employees. If oil and gas go, so too would the need for these jobs.

Will States Go To Bat For Agriculture?

The Bureau of Land Management has a big job. Two hundred and forty-five million acres across 50 states is a lot to manage. Finding a holistic and harmonious dynamic between energy, conservation, agriculture and recreation activities is no simple task. The Public Land rule seems to add stress to already strained communication between these sectors, and has the potential to undermine the good work that is already being done.

Historically, though the BLM has a very broad reach, it defers to state regulation for much of what takes place on public lands.  This has allowed individual states to manage their micro economies. With new rules comes the potential for a heavier hand from the bureau. Agricultural, as well as energy and recreational, groups are hoping that their states will go to bat for them to ensure they are represented well during the adaptation process.

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