Roadless area in the Safford Field Office BLM

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BLM needs to act quickly to implement the rule and protect healthy communities, wildlife, and cultural values

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April 18, 2024 (Phoenix) – After prioritizing extractive industries for the past 40 years, today the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its final “Public Lands Rule” to balance and uphold its multiple-use mission. The Biden administration’s bold, comprehensive framework places cultural lands protection, conservation, access to nature, wildlife, and climate change mitigation on equal footing with industrial development across the West. Lawmakers, local officials, recreationists, conservationists, and Tribal nations throughout Arizona are celebrating this once-in-a-generation opportunity for local collaboration with the agency to address intensifying drought, wildfires, and other threats to public lands and waters.

“Arizona’s public lands are defining and iconic, home to culturally significant areas that have been home to Indigenous people since time immemorial,” said Sandy Bahr, the Grand Canyon Chapter Director of the Sierra Club. “They provide vital habitat that must be protected from the threat of mining and development. The Bureau of Land Management’s Public Lands Rule is overdue and urgently needed to restore and strengthen these treasured landscapes for the health of our communities, the deep connections from the numerous Tribes in Arizona and elsewhere, the plants and animals that are part of this amazing landscape, and the planet.”

The BLM oversees nearly 40 percent of U.S. public lands (245 million acres), including 12 million acres of vitally important deserts, woodlands, and critical watersheds that provide clean drinking water and fresh air, wildlife habitat, destinations for outdoor recreation, and hold innumerable cultural sites and areas valued by Indigenous communities in Arizona. Sadly, for decades only 12 percent of the lands managed by the BLM in Arizona have been protected for their outstanding conservation values. All of these lands – as well as the plants and animals that depend on them – are at risk from extreme weather events that are causing rapid changes in Arizona and across the West. The BLM’s new rule will help Arizonans adapt to these challenges by providing the agency and local communities with fiscally responsible management tools, such as applying land-health standards and strengthening existing conservation options. Co-stewardship and co-management with Tribal nations who have cared for these lands and waters since time immemorial are also crucial to the success of the rule.

“The Bureau of Land Management oversees more than 12 million acres of public land in Arizona, but half of these lands fail to meet rangeland health standards because they’ve been degraded by drought, wildfire, invasive species, and other impacts from climate change. The new public lands rule gives the agency the tools it needs to restore these degraded ecosystems so that the wildlife, outdoor recreation, hunting, fishing, and rural communities—that depend on healthy public lands—can thrive for generations to come,” added Scott Garlid, Executive Director, Arizona Wildlife Federation.

This new direction is widely popular. During the BLM’s 2023 public process, more than 90 percent of comments were in favor of elevating conservation for a more balanced approach to public land management. This support for more conservation is aligned  with Arizonans’ opinions. In a 2021 Gallup poll in partnership with the Center for the Future of Arizona, 92 percent of Arizonans said it was a priority to protect and preserve Arizona’s rivers, natural areas, and wildlife. Additionally the 2023 Colorado College State of the Rockies poll found 86 percent of Arizonans said they support a national goal of conserving 30 percent of America’s land and waters by 2030.  

Erica Prather from WildEarth Guardians, said “Protecting our public lands is one of the cornerstones of mitigating the climate crises and securing our watersheds. We’re excited to work with local BLM officials to implement the conservation measures that lie ahead with this new rule.” 

Conservation groups, local lawmakers, Tribal leaders, and the recreation community are urging the Biden administration to get to work on the ground implementing the agency’s new balanced management approach. Management plans for the sprawling Kingman and Safford Field Offices’ (covering 3.8 million acres of public land) have not been updated in 30 years. These outdated plans must be revised, and conservation must be a priority if the BLM is going to meet the challenges of the climate and biodiversity crises we are facing. The BLM has identified over 2 million acres of land across Arizona that should be administratively protected – places like Burro Creek, the Aquarius Mountains, and the Hassayampa River – that local communities cherish. Despite these areas being identified for conservation, the agency has failed to take any meaningful steps towards protecting them.

“This Public Lands Rule provides clear guidance to the Bureau of Land Management that conservation should receive the same level of attention as extractive uses,” said Mike Quigley, Arizona State Director, The Wilderness Society. “Arizonans treasure our public lands for recreation, connecting with family and friends, wildlife watching, and many other conservation-dependent activities; this Rule will provide mechanisms for Arizonans’ voices to be heard and acted upon in land use planning.” 

Not only is the new Public Lands Rule critical to Arizona’s environment it’s also vitally important for the state’s economy. Arizona’s $21 billion annual outdoor recreation economy is dependent upon access to protected wild landscapes, and the state’s iconic trails, wildlife areas, and rivers –  like the San Pedro River and the De Anza Trail – which are on lands managed by the BLM. The Public Lands Rule will provide communities and local BLM managers the tools they need to ensure the future of these economically important places.

“In Arizona, outdoor recreation contributes four times the economic benefit of mining, and over twenty times the benefit of ranching, and it’s about time the BLM truly embraced its multiple-uses mandate by prioritizing the resources that are vital to the Grand Canyon State,” said Arizona Trail Association executive director Matthew Nelson. “But even more important than the economic benefits of outdoor recreation are the improved quality of life that comes from time spent in these wild places. The conservation of our public lands is vital to our way of life, and necessary for our health, wellness, and future.”

Lisa M Lamberson, owner of Mountain Sports Flagstaff and Co-owner of Bright Side Bookshop in Arizona said, “The BLM’s Public Land Rule will ensure that the agency brings their management of public lands across Arizona and the West into balance. The rule puts conservation on equal footing with other uses, improving BLM planning and management. I’m thrilled that the BLM will manage for resilient ecosystems, which includes protecting intact landscapes and land health.” 

Arizona’s members of Congress have championed greater protections for BLM lands across the state. Rep. Raúl Grijalva joined nearly four dozen members of Congress voicing support for the rule in a letter to Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland. Local officials joined more than 120 past and present western elected officials calling for additional protection of lands managed by the BLM.     

Betsy Harter, Associate of Sustainability at Kahtoola, Inc. said, “Kahtoola stands in support of the BLM’s new Public Lands Rule. Putting conservation on equal footing with other land uses is not just the ethical thing to do, but it comes at a time where the stakes are high and our decisions on how we interact with the planet are extremely consequential. This balanced approach to decision-making is crucial for ensuring the long-term sustainability of our nation’s public lands for generations to come.”

Arizonans have been pushing for changes to BLM land management for years – hoping to encourage a more balanced approach that ensures conservation. In November of 2022, leading national conservation organizations active in Arizona signed on to a public call to support new BLM guidance on “habitat connectivity on public lands,” and in September of 2022, a coalition of Arizona conservation organizations wrote to the BLM State Director to support BLM’s authority to protect Arizona’s most valuable wildlands. Conservation advocates hope the new rule will ensure a more balanced approach to management.

“Today’s announcement will bring much needed balance to the BLM’s management of public lands across Arizona,” said Kelly Burke, Executive Director of Wild Arizona. “Local communities on the ground across our state have worked for years to shift the BLM’s management to focus more on conservation and protection of our water, wildlands, wildlife corridors, and cultural resources. After almost 50 years of inattention, the Biden Administration and BLM deserve a lot of credit for finally putting conservation, recreation and cultural resource protection on equal footing with other uses.”