BILLING, Mont. — The Biden administration wants to put conservation of vast government-owned land on an equal footing with oil extraction, cattle grazing and other interests, according a senior administration official who defended the idea against criticism that it would interfere with the industry.

The proposal would allow conservationists and others to lease federally owned land to restore it, in the same way that oil companies buy leases to drill and ranchers pay to graze cattle. Businesses could also buy conservation leases, such as oil drillers who want to offset damage to public lands by restoring acreage elsewhere.

Tracy Stone-Manning, director of the Bureau of Land Management, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the proposed changes would address the growing pressure of climate change and development. While the office previously issued conservation leases in limited cases, it has never had a dedicated program for it, she said.

“It makes conservation equal across the multiple uses that we manage,” Stone-Manning said. “There are rules about how we do solar development. There are rules about how we do oil and gas. There have been no rules about how we comply with the parts of (federal law) that say, ‘Manage for fish and wildlife habitat, manage for clean water.’”

Tracy Stone-Manning during her confirmation hearing on June 8, 2021.Alex Brandon / AP File

The pending rule would also promote the establishment of more areas of “critical environmental concern” due to their historical or cultural significance, or their importance to wildlife conservation. More than 1,000 such sites covering about 33,000 square miles (85,000 square kilometers) have previously been designated.

By comparison, about 242,00 square miles of office land is open to cattle grazing.

But more than a century after the US began selling off oil and gas concessions, the idea of ​​conservation is sparking a debate about the best use of vast government property, mostly in the West.

Opponents, including Republican lawmakers, criticize it as a back door way exclude mining, energy development, and agriculture from BLM-controlled lands.

The office has a track record of pro-industry policy for the 380,000 square miles (990,000 square kilometers) it oversees, an area more than twice the size of California. It also regulates publicly owned underground minerals, including oil, coal, and lithium for renewable energy over 1 million square miles.

Those holdings put the 10,000-person agency at the center of discussions about how much development should be allowed.

On Monday night, senior agency officials were scheduled to host the first virtual public meeting on the conservation proposal. Another virtual event is scheduled for June 5 and public meetings are planned for May 25 in Denver; May 30 in Reno, Nevada; and June 1 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

US Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who tried to block Stone-Manning Senate confirmation in 2021says the proposed rule is illegal.

Earlier this month, he rebuked Home Secretary Deb Haaland during a Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing, saying he was «giving radicals a new tool to shut out the public.»

“The secretary wants to turn a non-use into a use,” said Barrasso, the ranking Republican on the committee. «She’s … turning federal law upside down.»

Stone-Manning said critics are misinterpreting the rule and that conservation leases would not encroach on existing ones. If grazing is now allowed on a plot, it could continue. And people could still hunt on the rental property or use it for recreation, she said.

Former President Donald Trump tried to push fossil fuel development on office grounds, but President Joe Biden suspended new oil and gas leases when he took office. Biden then revived the deals to win the support of Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin for last year’s climate law.

Biden remains under intense pressure from Manchin and many Republicans to allow more drilling. These companies currently have leases on some 37,500 square miles of office land.

Environmentalists have largely embraced the idea of ​​conservation leases, characterizing the proposal as backwards.

Joel Webster of Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of conservation groups and game and fish organizations, said the administration’s plan would establish a process to ensure landscapes are considered for conservation without imposing restrictions.

However, he cautioned that administration officials need to ensure that a final rule does not have unintended consequences.

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