Wyoming and Utah sue federal government to stop controversial “conservation rule”

by Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management circumvented the National Environmental Policy Act by enacting its new “conservation rule,” a “fundamental shift” in how federal lands are managed that threatens wildlife, landscape health and the economies that depend on the roughly 245 million acres of BLM-managed lands across the country, according to a lawsuit filed this week by Wyoming and Utah.

The two western states, which together own more than 41 million acres of BLM land, filed the 34-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Utah on Tuesday, asking the court to overturn the conservation and landscape health order passed in April.

“Ever since this abomination of a rule reared its ugly head and demonstrated the Biden administration's disregard for the law, I have fought it tooth and nail,” Gov. Mark Gordon said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “This legal challenge ensures that this administration is held accountable for circumventing the fundamental federal laws that govern public lands management by attempting to eliminate multiple use through a distorted definition of conservation, and that it does so with impunity.”

The lawsuit is the latest in Gordon's mounting legal battles against the Biden administration over land use and climate policy. The administration has enacted a series of new policies in recent months that violate Wyoming's wildlife management primacy and many state programs implementing federal environmental regulations on issues such as emissions from coal, oil and natural gas, the governor said. Gordon said the administration appears determined to destroy the state's fossil fuel industries while ignoring his own initiative to “decarbonize” those industries as a means of combating climate change.

An oil rig in Converse County. (David Korzilius/BLM/FlickrCC)

However, members of the Freedom Caucus in the Wyoming legislature accused Gordon of a “lethargic” response to recent federal legislation.

Gordon has scheduled a town hall event in Gillette for Tuesday from 1 to 3 p.m. to highlight his administration's response to the barrage of new federal policies. Those policies include the EPA's coal pollution regulations, the BLM's changes to protect sage grouse, its “methane rule” and a proposal to end federal coal leasing in the Powder River Basin.

Conservation rule

The BLM presented its draft conservation ordinance last year, emphasizing that federal land management strategies would need to be adapted to address increasing pressures from climate change, such as severe droughts, wildfires and invasive plant species.

The rule “promotes conservation and defines that term to include both protection and restoration activities,” according to the BLM. The rule “also clarifies that conservation is a use equal to other uses of public lands under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.”

“It appears that Utah and Wyoming are using all of these strategies to drag us all into legal shoals and distract from the bigger picture, which is that the public wants to see more balanced management of these resources and assets.”


Environmental groups, including the Lander-based Wyoming Outdoor Council, have hailed the conservation ordinance as a victory for landscape health that also supports rural economies by ensuring healthy wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities.

The regulation “does not prevent oil and gas production, mining or grazing on public lands,” the council's website states. “But it enshrines protection and restoration as necessary components of responsible management. This benefits our wildlife habitat, areas of cultural significance, water quality and landscape integrity.”

In a webinar the council hosted last year, Meghan Riley, the group's wildlife program manager, said the BLM's conservation rule was a much-needed correction to what had been an excessive emphasis on industrial development.

“Some of those profitable uses have received a little more attention in management decisions, and some of those conservation values ​​may have fallen by the wayside,” Riley said. “The intent of this proposed rule is to put conservation on an equal footing with some of those other uses on BLM lands and provide more balance in management decisions.”

U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced a bill last year to block the rule. Nine senators, including U.S. Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming), joined him as cosponsors, but the bill never moved forward.

Barrasso also said he would use the Congressional Review Act to block the rule. But that didn't happen.

A mountain biker rides at Johnny Behind the Rocks on BLM land near Lander. (Leslie Kehmeier/Bureau of Land Management/FlickrCC)

“It appears that Utah and Wyoming are using all of these strategies to drag us all into legal shoals and distract from the bigger picture, which is that the public wants to see more balanced management of these resources and assets,” Rachael Hamby, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, told WyoFile on Wednesday.

Hamby pointed to an analysis of public comments submitted to the BLM on the rule by the Center for Western Priorities. The group found that 92% of comments either supported the proposed rule or favored making it more stringent for conservation purposes.

“The American taxpayers whose lands include these overwhelmingly support this measure,” Hamby said.

“The BLM should have been providing for multiple uses all along,” she continued. “We saw that the mining industry often took precedence, and people got used to that. So now we're seeing this rule that says, 'We're going to go back to a true multiple-use management framework,' and now they're going to be one of many uses that are on equal footing in terms of how the BLM manages its public lands.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on people, places and politics in Wyoming.

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