The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages some 245 million acres (100 million hectares) of land—about one-eighth of the United States—and 700 million acres (283 million hectares) of subsurface mineral resources. Most of these lands are located in the western United States, including Alaska, and are dominated by extensive grasslands, forests, high mountains, arctic tundra, and deserts.
This National System of Public Lands is managed for multiple uses, including conventional and renewable energy development, mining, grazing, recreation, and resource conservation. The BLM was established July 16, 1946,under the Reorganization Plan No.3 of 1946 Act as a merger of the Department of Interior General Land Office (established 1849) and the Department of Interior Grazing Service (established 1934). Its programs and management have evolved to address a wider range of values associated with public lands, reflecting changes in public priorities and the passage of various federal laws. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 mandated better management of grazing lands in the face of widespread overgrazing. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, applicable to all federal agencies, called for consideration of impacts to the broader environment (including the human environment) that would result from a federal action. The Endangered Species Act (1973) required agencies to ensure their actions would not jeopardize the continued existence of plant and animal species.
In 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) established a multiple use and sustained yield mission for the BLM. That mission, as described by the agency, is to “sustain the health and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” To provide agency-wide recognition for conservation objectives, the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) was established in 2000 to include national monuments, national conservation areas, wilderness, and other distinctive areas that are administered by the BLM. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 codified the mission of the NLCS: “to conserve, protect, and restore nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations” (123 Stat. 1095, sect. 2002(a)).
The BLM’s land allocation decision process typically considers a range of alternative management scenarios outlining varying levels of competing or multiple uses, including conservation uses. Under an approved land use plan, some land allocation decisions will allow commodity development, whereas other decisions may focus on conservation and recreation. In these contexts, managers need to understand the tradeoffs involved and—to the extent feasible—have a comprehensive view of the values of competing uses. For both reasons, applying the lens of ecosystem services—mapping their provision and valuing their benefits—makes good sense.
The first step toward integrating an ecosystem services framework at the BLM came in recognizing the need to value those human benefits of public lands management that are not captured by conventional economic measures: the field of nonmarket environmental values. In 1981, the BLM’s Social and Economic Policy and Action Plan called for the agency to consider “nonmarket values of all goods and services produced on public lands.” Nonetheless, from 1981 until recently, few of the BLM’s socioeconomic impact analyses for land use plans or projects considered nonmarket values. During that time period, there was little agency guidance or internal expertise in the area of nonmarket valuation.
The 2005 revision of the BLM Land Use Planning Handbook (H-1601-1) recommended that planners “consider the significance of the non-market values associated with resources managed or impacts by theBLM when formulating the management alternatives.” In 2013, the BLM released policy and guidance on estimating nonmarket environmental values. In 2012, to develop additional support for the consideration of nonmarket values, the BLM contracted with U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to prepare four case studies on the application of nonmarket values to field office decisions for plans or projects, documenting the challenges and relevance for resource management decisions.
At an agency-wide level, an explicit recognition of the need to consider ecosystem services resulted from a 2008 review of the BLM’s socioeconomic research needs, conducted jointly with the USGS. This review led to a series of pilot projects to assess the technical feasibility and usefulness of applying ecosystem services metrics to the BLM’s plans and projects. The first pilot project, completed in 2012, involved a comparative analysis of ecosystem services methods and tools, applied to four services and several management scenarios in the San Pedro watershed of southeast Arizona. Researchers used multiple methods and tools (including ARIES and InVEST) to evaluate three scenarios—mesquite removal, urban growth, and water augmentation—to assess changes in carbon sequestration, water provisioning, biodiversity, and cultural (recreational and aesthetic) benefits. The second,ongoing, study involves the application of ecosystem services methods to assess water availability and scenic values in support of an oil and gas development environmental impact statement in eastern Utah.
As an agency with a multiple-use and sustained yield mandate, the BLM recognizes that the public lands it administers provide many benefits to surrounding communities and the nation as a whole. Its management efforts are aimed at maintaining these natural systems for current and future generations. The BLM does not utilize an explicit ecosystem services approach bureau-wide to make decisions about natural resource planning and management. However, such an approach could be helpful in several contexts, including land-use plan decisions and implementation decisions.
Decision Context I: Land-Use Plan Decisions
The BLM’s land-use plan decisions are made through development of resource management plans,which explain how the BLM will manage areas of public land over a period of time (typically 20 years). Most such plans are developed at the field office or district office level, though regional planning areas that cross field office boundaries may be established as needed. Resource management plans contain two types of land-use plan decisions: desired outcomes and allowable uses. Desired outcomes for the planning area are the goals and objectives for which resources in the area will be managed. These outcomes are informed by legal mandates, regulations, and policy as well as by the overall goal of managing public lands in a way that will best meet multiple use and sustained yield mandates.
The second type of land-use plan decisions are comprised of allowable uses and management actions anticipated to achieve desired outcomes (goals and objectives). Allowable use decisions identify locations within the planning area where specific uses may be prioritized, allowable, restricted, or prohibited. For example, some surface land may be closed to fluid mineral development to protect significant wildlife values. Other areas, such as solar energy zones, may be identified as priority areas for renewable energy development. In addition to these allowable use decisions, land use plans identify management actions that may be necessary to meet desired outcomes, such as habitat restoration.
The nine steps of the planning process are described in the BLM’s Land Use Planning Handbook and in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) at Title 43 § 1610. Some of the major steps are tied to the NEPA analysis process and include scoping, describing the current management situation and resource conditions, identifying management alternatives, and estimating and describing the effects of the alternatives on the human environment. Scoping is a public involvement process during which the BLM solicits comments and concerns from the public to assist in the identification of planning issues, such as potential resource conflicts, levels of resource use, and development and protection opportunities for consideration in the development of the resource management plan. An analysis of the management situation describes current resource conditions, the existing management situation, and management opportunities. On the basis of issues identified through scoping and analysis of the management situation, the BLM identifies a range of alternative management options for the planning area. These alternatives are then evaluated in terms of physical, biological, economic, and social effects.
Although not required by current regulations and guidance, use of an ecosystem services framework in the BLM’s planning process offers several potential benefits. Because of the multiple-use and sustained yield mandate, the BLM’s resource management plans involve tradeoffs among diverse resource values, including use and non-use values. The ecosystem services approach can provide a framework for systematically identifying and evaluating how services may change under different management alternatives. The framework provides a structure in which all resource uses are valued and should be explicitly defined and considered in the decision.
If adopted in land-use plan decisions, an ecosystem services approach could support and inform multiple aspects of the planning process. In scoping, ecosystem services language could be used to elicit stakeholder feedback on the relative value of resource uses. Because the ecosystem service approach explicitly connects the biophysical structure or ecological functions in a planning area to the human benefits generated, it will help planners connect the stakeholder-driven values identified in scoping to changing resource conditions. The ecosystem services framework is particularly helpful for integrating analyses across resource programs and for identifying the tradeoffs implicit in land-use plan decisions, which almost always involve tradeoffs between use and non-use values. When describing current resource conditions and evaluating the impacts of management alternatives, the ecosystem services approach frames the tradeoffs in a way that is inclusive of the many diverse resource values affected by the decisions and can therefore abate the tension that sometimes exists between resources uses with market value and those with primarily nonmarket value.
Key Players: Land Use Plan Decisions
Most individual plans are directed at the field or district office level, but the Washington Office Planning Program establishes national planning policy and guidance, assists field offices in the development of resource management plans, and provides planning expertise to other Washington Office program areas. Similarly, the Washington Office Socioeconomics Program provides national leadership and support for the BLM’s social and economic needs, including participating in the RMP process and engaging in cross-cutting initiatives. Conveniently, the Washington Office Planning and Socioeconomics programs are both part of the BLM’s Washington Office Division of Decision Support, Planning, and NEPA (WO-210), removing some institutional hurdles that might otherwise impede the use of ecosystem services in the land use planning process.
Developing resource management plans is a collaborative process, requiring coordination with tribal, state, and local governments; federal agencies; resource advisory councils;other interested parties such as non-governmental organizations and environmental advocacy groups; and the general public. The process is typically directed by BLM field or district offices. The interdisciplinary team developing the plan includes planners and resource specialists representing the range of resources important in the planning area, including socioeconomic specialists. Often, the socioeconomic component of the planning process is completed by outside experts, including teams from other agencies and universities and consultants under contract to the government.
Legal and Management Context: Land Use Plan Decisions
Land use plan requirements are established by sections 201 and 202 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA, 43 U.S.C. 1711-1712) and the regulations in 43 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR 1600).Additional guidance for BLM planning is provided in the Land Use Planning Handbook (H-1601-1).This legal and management context is generally compatible with an ecosystem services approach.
Methods, Tools, Capacity: Land Use Plan Decisions
As described above, through a series of pilot projects and case studies,the BLM has considered and is currently evaluating multiple tools and approaches for incorporating ecosystem services concepts into the land use planning process.
An additional BLM effort that can help support the use of an ecosystem services framework in land use plans is the development of rapid eco-regional assessments (REAs). These assessments collect and synthesize regional information to document key resource values, describe ecological trends, and provide a baseline characterization of the eco-region. This information could be used to model the ecological relationships supporting ecosystem services production.
The BLM’s national socioeconomics program includes economists and other social scientists working in various units throughout the BLM who can provide assistance and guidance on the socioeconomic aspects of incorporating ecosystem services in land use plan decisions. The national program includes staff in multiple Washington Office programs, staff at the National Operations Center, four zoned socioeconomic specialists providing support across multiple states, and staff at some state and field offices. Bureau-wide, this group includes fewer than 20 socioeconomic specialists, a circumstance that presents some very real operational challenges to addressing socioeconomic needs. Because an ecosystem services framework requires integration of ecological and socioeconomic data and concepts, these challenges extend to an ecosystem services analysis as well. In light of these challenges, the BLM has developed strong relationships with outside partners, including other federal agencies and private contractors. In addition to relying on outside partners to complete components of resource management plans, these partnerships have been essential in the development and evaluation of tools and methods for ecosystem services evaluation.
Decision Context II: Implementation Decisions
Resource management plans identify the allowable uses on public lands across a planning area. Specific proposed actions at a given site are referred to as implementation decisions or activity-level decisions. These are the decisions that implement the actions provided for by land use plans. Activity-level or project-specific implementation decisions include site-specific NEPA analysis as appropriate, and provide final approval for specific on-the-ground actions. Implementation decisions can be for proponent-led projects, wherein a user proposes a specific action, or for BLM projects, wherein the BLM or another federal agency proposes an action. Implementation or activity-level plans can also identify a series of implementing actions, such as an allotment management plan or a recreation area management plan. These plans outline actions needed to meet plan objectives for a resource program.
As described above, resource management plans cover a wide range of resources and resource uses within a single decision context. Implementation decisions are typically focused on a single activity or project. As a group, implementation decisions cover the full range of resource uses managed by the BLM. Implementation decisions and plans include the following:
- Review of permit applications from companies interested in exploring, developing, and producing both renewable and nonrenewable energy from the public lands the agency manages. Land use plans identify areas open to energy development; implementation decisions are used to evaluate individual permits and leases with restrictions or conditions of approval.
- Decisions to issue permits and leases to ranchers wanting to graze their livestock on BLM-managed lands. Land use plans identify areas open or closed to grazing. In this context, an allotment management plan would identify implementation decisions for allotment-specific grazing management practices and livestock forage amounts to achieve desired outcomes.
- Decisions to grant a right of way for proposed electric transmission lines, communication sites, roads, trails, canals, pipelines, or other projects on public lands.
In some cases, implementation decisions have limited impacts that are easily characterized. In other cases, they involve significant tradeoffs among multiple resource uses, users, and values. An ecosystem services approach can be particularly useful for improving communications and generating better decisions in implementation plans that involve contrasting impacts on multiple ecosystem services, trade offs between use and non-use values, and conflicts among resource users.
Key Players: Implementation Decisions
Implementation plans may be developed for proponent-led projects or BLM-led projects. In either case, the analysis is often contracted out to an environmental services consultant. Adopting an ecosystem services approach would require BLM staff to be familiar with ecosystem services and the use of consultants knowledgeable about those services.
Legal and Management Context: Implementation Decisions
Implementation decisions are subject to appropriate NEPA analysis as described in the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulations under 40 CFR§ 1500-1508; Department of Interior (DOI) regulations under 43 CFR § 46 and the BLM NEPA Handbook (H-1790-1). Additional regulations and policies may apply, depending on the type of project proposed.
Methods, Tools, Capacity: Implementation Decisions
Efforts to develop methods, tools, and capacity for land use plan decisions also apply to implementation decisions. Relative to land use decisions, implementation decisions are based on more specific proposed changes to a region, involve a smaller range of actions and resource values, and cover a smaller geographic scale. If the BLM is to use an ecosystem services approach to evaluating implementation decisions, it will need tools that can be used by non-specialists for routine analysis and guidance to help non-specialists identify when these “standard” tools are appropriate and when additional help from specialists is called for.
A variety of institutional factors at the Bureau of Land Management both constrain and encourage the adoption of ecosystem services analysis as a routine operational activity. Limiting factors include declining staff levels, declining operational budgets, and a very heavy workload of proposed land and resource uses, primarily analyzed through thousands of environmental assessments (EAs) each year. At the field office level, where the overwhelming majority of land uses actions are decided, these factors severely constrain the time and money that can be spent to meet any added analytic requirements, such as ecosystem services modeling and valuation. Supporting factors include an organizational culture that encourages local innovation, and a strong ethos of working through partnerships with local governments, interest groups, and other federal agencies.
The BLM has developed two agency examples for this guidebook:
An Ecosystem Services Approach to Sage-Grouse Conservation: Upper Green River Conservation Exchange Program describes a collaborative effort to protect habitat for sage-grouse in advance of the species’ potential listing by the Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. The program is being developed by a diverse partnership of stakeholders, including the BLM, state agencies, universities, oil and gas interests, private landowners, and environmental NGOs.
Protecting Ecosystem Services While Developing Renewable Energy: Bureau of Land Management Solar Energy Program describes a program that defines how utility-scale solar energy is considered and developed on BLM managed lands. The program identified areas where solar energy development is the priority land use allocation and areas where utility-scale solar is not allowed. The goal is to site development in a way that minimizes threats to other ecosystem services.
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