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Key Federal Agency Takes Steps to Protect Public Lands, Curb Climate Change

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On October 1, 2021, the U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination of Tracy Stone-Manning to head up the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This is the U.S. Interior Department agency charged with overseeing national monuments and other public lands, as well as key aspects of energy development.

A longtime conservation advocate, Stone-Manning has worked for the National Wildlife Federation, served as chief of staff to former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and advisor to Sen. Jon Tester, and led Montana's Department of Environmental Quality. Just three months since her confirmation, she is beginning to reverse the previous administration’s harmful policies and ensure our public lands are conserved and used in ways that benefit us all.

Last year, the Center for Progressive Reform laid out five priorities for her and the agency. Here’s an update on progress so far:

1. Restore or expand all targeted national monuments. The Trump administration shrank numerous national monuments, with Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante among the most infamous. About a week after Stone-Manning’s confirmation, the Biden administration restored these monuments to their original sizes, safeguarding these sacred and scientifically important antiquities and protecting key public lands for future generations.

2. Restart climate adaptation planning. Protecting public lands from sea-level rise, flooding, wildfires, biodiversity loss, and other climate impacts must be at the center of the BLM's mission. Making it so will pay other dividends, too, such as safeguarding public health and nearby communities.

In its 2021 Climate Action Plan, the Interior Department issued a policy statement for adaptation and resilience, including on public lands and waters. The department pledged to mainstream and integrate climate adaptation into its policies, planning, practices, and programs. The administration has also issued an executive order establishing a goal of conserving at least 30 percent of U.S. lands, water, and ocean areas by 2030, which it says is key to adaptation. And its climate and social spending package would incorporate a “Civilian Climate Corps,” but the package has stalled due to opposition in the Senate. Still, because the BLM has been the least advanced of the major federal land agencies in terms of adaptation, it has the most catching up to do.

3. Prioritize renewable energy development and transmission. The BLM administers more land and more subsurface mineral estate than any other government agency, and much of the land it oversees is used for energy development. Biden’s BLM has pledged to ramp up renewable sources of energy on public lands and is pursuing new solar and other renewable energy projects — a marked departure from the previous administration’s emphasis on coal mining and oil and gas drilling.

Stone-Manning has called boosting renewable energy a top priority, and the agency is moving to expand solar power development on U.S. land in the West while taking environmental considerations into account. Environmental groups will be pushing hard to ensure that disruption to environmental habitats will be minimized. The BLM is currently seeking public input on the issue and has paused wind and solar rent and fee collection during the comment period.

4. Tighten restrictions on oil and gas leasing and fracking. Stone-Manning is helping lead federal efforts to cap abandoned oil and gas wells on public lands and prevent them from belching methane into the atmosphere. At the same time, the administration continues to allow hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) on public lands. It also has yet to institute strong, effective regulations to prevent methane leaks and underground injections of toxic chemicals and waste from fracking operations, which can taint groundwater and cause earthquakes.

5. Require offsets for environmental harms. Millions of acres on our federal public lands are open to grazing, mining, hiking, and camping, including lands that BLM oversees. When these activities degrade or pollute our lands, the agency and Interior should require responsible parties to completely offset damage with environmental restoration projects and other efforts; curtail uses of public lands that generate carbon pollution; and advance the federal government's efforts to combat climate change. The Trump administration rolled back “compensatory mitigation” policies, but the Biden administration rescinded that move.

Trump's Bureau of Land Management violated its obligations as a trustee of the nation's public lands and resources. Stone-Manning has begun to repair the damage — including by reversing the previous administration’s decision to relocate BLM headquarters out of Washington, D.C., and to the mountains of western Colorado — and galvanize the agency's commitment to curb and adapt to climate change. But much more must be done to ensure our public lands and waters benefit all people, their communities, and our natural heritage for generations to come.

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