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BLM's 'Public Lands Rule' could reform conservation, access in New Mexico

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Roz Brown

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(New Mexico News Connection) Balancing the needs of the many with those who have traditionally reaped benefits from public lands is behind a new rule issued Thursday by the Bureau of Land Management.

A quarter-million acres of public lands, including 13 million in New Mexico, now fall under the Public Lands Rule. The BLM is charged with managing multiple uses but has historically prioritized extraction, such as oil and gas drilling, along with cattle grazing, over conservation and outdoor recreation.

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Jesse Duebel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, believes the new rule is more fair-minded.

"I really feel like this new rule doesn't minimize those other things," Duebel asserted. "The other uses are still going to be allowed to continue but now, decisions are going to be made with conservation in the forefront. And of course, conservation by definition, is the 'wise use' of our natural resources."

The rule requires BLM managers to prioritize designating more "Areas of Critical Environmental Concern" in their land use planning. Right now the number is small, but they help protect cultural sites and wildlife habitat.

The rule also allows BLM managers to issue conservation leases to nonprofit and community organizations, including tribal communities, for landscape restoration work on public lands.

Keegan King, executive director of the Native Land Institute, believes in the face of climate change, the long-term health of public lands must be a priority.

"I'm a conservationist but I'm also a hunter, and it's important that we protect these places for a variety of different uses," King explained. "There are ranchers and other people that utilize federal lands and it's important that all of it is maintained for future generations."

According to the Commerce Department's 2022 Bureau of Economic Analysis data, outdoor recreation generated $2.4 billion in added value for New Mexico and created almost 28,000 jobs.

During the BLM's public process on the issue, more than 90 percent of comments were in favor of elevating conservation for a more balanced approach to public land management.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.