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The Bureau of Land Management, the single biggest steward of real estate in the U.S., often finds itself in the crossfire of heated arguments over how best to use and/or protect the more than 250 million acres it is responsible for across the American West.
To put these vast holdings in context, BLM lands account for 1 of every 10 acres of surface land in the country, so what the BLM does with these taxpayer-owned properties has a big impact on local environments as well as on local economies.
The agency is supposed to see that its lands are managed in the national interest and in a way that meets a long list of responsible-use requirements. BLM lands are set aside for wildlife management, for hunting and fishing, for protection of cultural and historical resources, for camping, boating, hiking, rock-climbing, biking and at least a dozen other purposes.
BLM lands are also used for natural resource development — mostly logging, grazing, mining and gas and oil extraction — and in this arena, the agency has lagged in responding to America’s shift to renewables in the national energy economy. An overview by the agency published last year showed renewable energy development accounting for less than 1 percent of economic activity on BLM lands, while 70 percent was controlled by oil and gas interests.
As we explained in a report we published this summer, the agency’s approach to utility-scale solar shows why. Less than 1 percent of BLM land across the sun-rich southwestern U.S.— lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah — are qualified for solar energy development under BLM’s rules. Much more is potentially available under special variance rules — some 19 million acres out of the more than 100 million managed in the region — but those rules are a significant and an unevenly administered constraint on new solar development.