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Background on the US Bureau of Land Management
Proposed Conservation and Landscape Health Rule
Alaska Bering Sea Interior Tribal Commission Leaders’ Views
Noticed in Federal Register 4-3-23 – Comments Due 6-20-2023

On Monday, April 3, 2023, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced a draft public lands rule in a major step toward improving protection of nature on over 245 million acres of BLM-managed land throughout the U.S..  The draft “Conservation and Landscape Health Rule” is intended to better balance conservation with other uses on BLM lands and establishes a framework for managing lands to ensure balanced decision making. Historically, BLM policy has favored mining, oil and gas exploration, and other development, over conservation. The draft rule is an opportunity for the agency to provide effective stewardship in the face of the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss and is a generational opportunity to improve how the largest land manager in the nation addresses conservation, restoration, and resilience.

In addition to promoting restoration of lands and waters, the proposed rule provides a framework for the protection of the most important intact, healthy landscapes, and provides for balanced, responsible development. The draft rule clarifies that conservation is a “use” within the Federal Land Policy Management Act’s (FLPMA’s) “multiple use” framework and revises existing regulations to better meet the requirement that BLM prioritize designating and protecting Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) where special management is required to protect important lands. In addition, the rule creates a new series of tools to promote ecosystem resilience that includes conservation leasing and compensatory mitigation.

The 22-page draft rule was published in the Federal Register on Monday, April 3, 2023 opening a 75-day public comment that concludes on June 20, 2023.  BLM will schedule three informational public meetings and two webinars, and the agency intends to finalize the rule by March, 31st of 2024.  Comments on the Draft Rule are due on June 20, 2023.

BLM’s Bering Sea-Western Interior resource management plan was finalized at the beginning of 2021, determining the future uses of 13.5 million acres of BLM-managed land in Alaska.  Over 50 remote Indigenous communities have intrinsic ties to this land for cultural values and sustenance the land provides in clean water, fish, and wildlife.

Twelve Alaska Tribes nominated local watersheds and other important areas for protection as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern – totaling 4.5 million acres.  The nominations were considered in Alternative B of the BLM Alaska Bering Sea-Western Interior Resource Management Plan, but all were rejected in BLM’s 2021 final plan that also eliminated all existing protections, making it BLM’s first plan approved without any conservation measures in Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.  Instead, the Final RMP opened all Tribally nominated areas to extractive development despite BLM’s acknowledgement that infrastructure related to mineral development “presents a high potential for impacts on cultural resources”.

The proposed Conservation and Landscape Health rulemaking emphasizes that conservation is one of the multiple uses in the agency’s Multiple Use – Sustained Yield paradigm. The rule aligns regulation with the Federal Land Policy Management Act’s requirement that BLM prioritize Areas of Critical Environmental Concern as the principal conservation designation under which the Tribally nominated important watersheds could be protected. 

Bering Sea Interior Tribal Commission Chairman Eugene Paul said, “Our member Tribes’ experience in BLM’s Bering Sea-Western Interior planning process tells us that this proposed rule that improves how BLM considers conservation of its land, is badly needed. The rule reflects the wide benefits that lands provide Indigenous Peoples by putting conservation of land that underpins our Way of Life on an equal footing with other uses, including energy development, timber harvesting, and mining. Since its beginning almost 80 years ago, the BLM agency has tended to prioritize development over conservation. The Bering Sea Interior Tribal Commission will continue to advocate for a final rule that is durable and that provides for consideration of conservation of ancestral lands, Indigenous Knowledge, and co-management of important landscapes”.

The rule also calls for:

  • Improved Process for Eliminating Conservation Elements.  In Alaska, BLM eliminated ACECs protections on 1.8 million acres in the Bering Sea-Western Interior Resource Management Plan including important watersheds like the Anvik, Unalakleet, North, Inglutalik, Kateel, Ungalik, Gisasa, and the Shaktoolik Rivers. The new rule’s provisions require BLM to justify reasoning for removal of conservation designations. Under the rule conservation designations can only be removedwhen: the BLM state director finds the special management attention is not needed due to another equal or greater protection mechanism; the relevant and important values are no longer present, cannot be recovered, or have recovered to the point where special management is no longer necessary; and findings must be supported by data or documented changes on the ground.  Frank Katchatag, President Native Village of Unalakleet said, “The Native Village of Unalakleet supported the existing and expanded nominations for conservation for the Unalakleet River; but the final Bering Sea-Western Interior plan eliminated those protections without telling us why, leaving our critical local river watershed open to mineral development, against our Tribe’s wishes. BLM’s new rule elevates Indigenous knowledge to be on par with western science and also sets standards requiring the agency to substantiate its reasons for eliminating existing protections from important landscapes – two essential improvements.”
  • Correcting “More than Locally Important”. First Chief Leo Lolnitz, Koyukuk Tribe.  The rule strikes the requirement of an area being “more than local significance” in order to qualify for protections. Several Alaska Tribes’ nominations were rejected for consideration in the Bering Sea-Western Interior plan because they were deemed not “more than locally important”, even though the nominations included spawning areas for fish that travel hundreds of river miles providing for many communities. For example, the Koyukuk Tribe nominated the 93,412-acre Honhosa River watershed for protection from mining but it was rejected by BLM for only having “locally significant qualities” for fish habitat. Koyukuk First Chief Leo Lolnitz “We know how important our river systems are because we live here. We know how many people up and down the river for hundreds of miles benefit from the fish that spawn near Koyukuk, but BLM rejected our nomination for protection of the Koyukuk and Honhosa River.   BLM recommended our local watersheds be open to mining. We still stand by our Koyukuk Tribe’s proposal that talked of our critical concerns about impacts from mining and climate change and how traditional use of land and waters are critically important for our survival and continuing our culture.”

    Many of the rejections around “local importance” occurred because BLM lacked western science data showing that the spawning areas were widely significant to the watershed and river system. For instance the protection nominations for Egavik Creek and Tenmile River near Unalakleet were rejected for not being “more than locally important” when local people know these rivers are critical spawning and rearing areas for all species of salmon and other fish species.  Since BLM had no western science data supporting local Indigenous knowledge, the nominations were rejected.
  • Elevating Indigenous Knowledge. Robert Walker, First Chief, Anvik Tribe. BLM’s Conservation and Landscape Health Rule “requires meaningful consultation during decision-making processes with Tribes and Alaska Native corporations on issues that affect their interests, including the use of Indigenous Knowledge”. The rulemaking holds Indigenous knowledge in the same esteem as western science, and this is especially important in Alaska where western science isn’t always available. Anvik First Chief, Robert Walker, said “The Anvik Tribe nominated our Old Anvik Village site for protection as an ACEC because of the cultural significance of that site to our people. But because BLM had no western science data about our old village site, the BLM, astonishingly, said the site had no “cultural significance” and the nomination wasn’t even considered. Elevating our Indigenous Knowledge in the planning process will improve plan outcomes – our Indigenous Knowledge should count. We know our traditional land by heart”.

BLM has more latitude to designate ACECs for habitat connectivity and landscape intactness. This is particularly important in Alaska where landscape intactness still exists.  Because Alaska is seeing severe impacts from climate change, landscape connectivity will play an important role in biodiversity and resilience through the severe changes in climate.

In early 2021, the finalized Bering Sea-Western Interior RMP ignored Tribes’ input and contained no significant conservation elements.  Completion of this rulemaking will prevent unbalanced outcomes like the Bering Sea-Western Interior plan from happening again.  Three Tribal leaders involved in the Bering Sea-Western Interior planning process have told their story about how the planning process rejected their concerns, how the plan outcome will affect Peoples’ way of life, and how this rulemaking is badly needed.