The U. S. House Committee on Natural Resources hearing held on Thursday, June 15, 2023, was singularly focused on H.R. 3397, sponsored by Rep. John R. Curtis (R-UT-3), which requires the Director of the Bureau of Land Management (“USBLM”) to withdraw its‘ Conservation and Landscape Health Proposed Rule. This is the second such committee hearing held in the House on this Proposed Rule in recent weeks.
While both Democrat and Republican members of the committee expressed concern over the manner in which the public meetings were held by USBLM during the comment period, a clear partisan divide exists between the committee members on the purpose and implementation of the Proposed Rule itself. Several Republican members took issue with the public meetings being held in urban areas, far removed from the rural areas which would potentially be directly impacted by the implementation of this Proposed Rule. Several Democrat members echoed those concerns, especially in regard to some of those rural areas lacking a sufficient technological infrastructure required to attend the meetings virtually.
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM-3) relayed her request that USBLM consider clarifying language in the Rule to better protect the future issuance of grazing leases without any impediment from the implementation of the Proposed Rule. Largely, however, the Democrat members overwhelmingly support the Proposed Rule; whereas the Republican members feel it goes far beyond the land management authority granted by Congress to the USBLM. Additionally, the Republican members expressed dissatisfaction with the 75-day public comment period for a rule that is believed to have significant impact on multiple use and sustained yield of land management activities, and for not having an Environmental Assessment performed on the proposed measure in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and federal regulations.
A recurring comment from Republican members and witnesses in both this hearing and the one held on May 24, 2023, is that this Proposed Rule will have a most profound impact on land management regulations; and, as such, a 75-day comment period is insufficient to effectively and completely assess and address the magnitude of issues. While requests for an additional 75 days for comment have been submitted to USBLM from the Republican members of the committee and other entities, USBLM has not been forthcoming with providing an extension. However, during the hearing, it was revealed that the USBLM has finally agreed to 15-day extension to the comment period. While not to the satisfaction of the Committee Chairman Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AK-4), he still expressed his appreciation for extending the comment period from June 20 to July 5.
During her testimony, USBLM Principal Deputy Director Nada Wolff Culver confirmed that USBLM has already received well over 120,000 comments on the Proposed Rule. While she did not specify as to how many of those submittals were requests for an extension to the comment period, the sheer volume of the comments that had already been received to that point signifies that this Proposed Rule is of tremendous significance and of potential consequence to many.