The overwhelming majority of these lands—more than 86 percent—lack durable protections from oil and gas leasing, mining, and other extractive industries. In fact, oil and gas drilling remains the preferred use of the BLM’s public lands, and existing regulations give the oil and gas industry excessive power in determining use outcomes.4 Despite a mandate to manage these public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations, the BLM has never established comprehensive regulations for conserving its natural wonders.
A proposed Public Lands Rule released by the Biden administration on March 30, 2023—open for public comment through June 20—would begin to remedy these gaps and balance how the BLM oversees these lands. Among other things, the proposal would establish management requirements that put conservation on par with resource extraction and would direct the BLM to conserve intact landscapes, manage for ecosystem resilience, and utilize conservation tools—including designating lands as “areas of critical environmental concern” (ACECs)—to protect its natural, cultural, and scenic wonders, and restore priority lands and waters.5
To put in perspective what is at stake, this report looks at seven areas managed by the BLM. These areas are a small sampling of the nation’s treasured lands and waters lacking meaningful conservation protections. The examples illustrate the need for the Biden administration to finalize a strong Public Lands Rule and act on community-led conservation proposals to steward America’s public lands for future generations.
What’s at stake
Intact BLM lands serve as vital habitat and migration corridors for wildlife; preserve cultural sites and a history stretching back millennia; offer outdoor recreation and related economic opportunities; and buffer the nation’s natural resources and communities against accelerating climate change. Yet with just 35 million acres of the 245 million acres managed explicitly for the conservation of their natural and cultural resources6 and the vast majority available for leasing, drilling, and mining, BLM lands are also America’s most vulnerable public lands. On the flip side, these lands represent one of President Joe Biden’s most significant conservation opportunities.
Wildlife habitat, ecosystem resilience, and climate change
BLM lands provide habitat for more than 3,000 wildlife species;7 more than 300 threatened or endangered wildlife, fish, and plant species;8 and more than 1,800 rare plant species, including more than 300 rare plant species found solely or mostly on BLM lands.9 Survival of vulnerable species such as the greater sage-grouse and big game such as elk, pronghorn, mule deer, and bighorn sheep depends on healthy, unfragmented landscapes managed by the BLM. Notably, the ecological value of BLM lands is not limited to existing protected areas. Regional-scale analysis has found a substantial opportunity to conserve unprotected BLM lands with more biodiversity and climate resilience value than already protected BLM lands and more rare species, on average, than national park lands.10
Unprotected BLM lands also serve as a natural buffer against the effects of climate change. Many of these lands provide the connective tissue between protected areas, serving as migration corridors for wildlife today and improving the chances for species to adapt as their natural habitat ranges are disrupted by climate change. Multiple analyses have shown that unprotected BLM lands contribute more to connectivity between protected areas than other federal land management agencies, demonstrating the importance of keeping these lands intact.11 Additionally, new BLM land protections would help secure essential natural carbon stores. One analysis found that preventing industrial development on about 10 percent of currently unprotected BLM lands with high conservation value could secure an estimated 3 billion tons of natural carbon stock,12 equivalent to the carbon emitted annually by nearly 3,000 coal-fired power plants.13
Outdoor recreation opportunities and economic benefits
Both protected and unprotected BLM lands offer a wide range of outdoor recreation opportunities for neighboring communities and visitors alike, including hiking, mountain biking, hunting, fishing, climbing, boating, camping, and more. As better-known parks become overcrowded, BLM-managed lands have and will become increasingly important to meet this growing public demand. When the coronavirus pandemic created spikes in demand that overcrowded places such as Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, visitors reportedly turned to nearby BLM lands to recreate.14
Outdoor recreation on BLM lands also contributes substantially to local economies, including for many rural communities. Although data collection is limited, the BLM recorded more than 80 million visits, contributing an estimated $11.4 billion to the national economy in fiscal year 2021.15 Another study estimated that wildlife-related recreation alone on these lands generated 26,500 jobs, more than $1 billion in wages, and more than $421 million in tax revenue in 2016.16 Finally, the BLM’s data show that outdoor recreation is on a growth trajectory, consistent with trends observed across all public lands in the past decade, even before pandemic-related spikes.17