Biden plan to sell land leases for conservation gets pushback

BILLINGS, Mont. — 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.”


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