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Stories That Captured Your Attention

By Living Landscape Observer January 5, 2021

In 2020, it often seemed as if each day held a year’s worth of headlines. As a result, stories that might have merited front page coverage in the recent past managed to escape significant media and public scrutiny. Our most popular post of 2020, “While We Were Not Watching,” tried to capture some of these missing narratives, especially as they related to the protection (or lack thereof) of large landscapes. More hopeful writings on the potential for large landscape conservation to aid in economic revitalization or contribute to the practice of interpretation and storytelling, also garnered attention over the past year.

Virginia Tidewater Farm
The protection of rural and agricultural landscapes, generated interest among readers in 2020.

Below is a summary of our 10 most read posts in 2020.

  1. “While we Were Not Watching” – In spring 2020, the nation and the world were riveted by the devastating spread of COVID-19. At the same time, the current administration proposed a number of potentially catastrophic initiatives to dismantle several well-established federal conservation programs.
  2. Conservation and Controversy the Agricultural Landscapes of Marin County, California – Agriculture has long had a huge impact on the economy of the San Francisco Bay region. The industry generates billions in revenue and employs close to half a million people. Marin County, especially, is known for nurturing local food production. Yet, the county is also the site of a long running dispute over the presence of private farms and ranches on public lands. The conflict, which dates to the 1960s, exposes the tensions that can underlie the preservation and use of living landscapes.
  3. Pennsylvania’s Conservation Landscapes: A Story of Success – Pennsylvania’s Conservation Landscapes program was launched more than a decade ago to connect people to the Commonwealth’s rich heritage of parks and forests. Today with seven designated regions, it is a model of landscape scale resource management. A recent study looks at the critical ingredients for its success and makes recommendations for the future of the program.
  4. The Impact of the Pandemic on Agricultural Landscapes – Our world may look very different after the current crisis. Agricultural landscapes, especially, will potentially be affected. The underlying structural challenges facing the farming community are well known. The World Rural Landscape Principles identified them as the aging farmer population, critical seasonal labor shortages, global market forces, urbanization, and, of course, the overarching threat of climate change. But will Covid-19 amplify these trends? Let’s look more closely.
  5. The Role of Storytelling in Landscape Conservation – The idea of using cultural objects or site-specific historic places as a way to convey a story is customary practice in heritage interpretation. However, storytelling on a landscape scale is less common. Heritage areas and the United States National Heritage Area program, in particular, have demonstrated the power of this approach to build partnerships and unify a region. More recently, the movement to conserve landscapes at scale has recognized the significance of storytelling to connect people to resources. More challenging is telling the less visible stories and those of underrepresented communities.
  6. Dramatic Changes Could be Coming to NEPA – In January 2020, the Trump administration proposed dramatic changes to the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a landmark law for both natural and cultural resource protection. In order to better understand the potential implications of these actions, we interviewed Dr. Tom King, a preservation professional, who has worked with NEPA and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) since before they were enacted in the 1960s.
  7. Washington Watch – Updates on the President’s 2021 budget, changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, and staffing vacancies at the National Park Service from early in 2020.
  8. Landscape-scale Community and Economic Development – Creating and implementing programs to jump start community and economic development on the ground is never easy. However, there are many benefits to doing so at a landscape scale. The opportunity for regional promotions, sharing capacity building initiatives, and assembling a critical mass of attractions are strategies with a record of success. What are some examples of this approach and why is it more critical than ever?
  9. Exploring the Landscapes of the Caribbean – Palm trees, turquoise water, and beaches are the idyllic images of the Caribbean promoted on TV. A wilder Caribbean landscape of nature reserves is familiar to eco-tourists. Yet, the perceptions of many of the region’s residents do not mesh easily with either of these perspectives. The challenge has been how to identify the significance of a larger sense of place for the local communities, for the people who live there, not the images constructed for tourists.
  10. U.S. Public Lands: Where to Now? – While the big excitement is passage of the America’s Great Outdoors Act, there is a lot more happening on and to public lands and most of it is not good news. Negative impacts include the shrinking of national monuments, numerous proposals for energy extraction, and elimination of regulatory protections.These actions leave cultural and natural resources vulnerable to destruction. But what about the future, where should we be heading?


This Land is My Land: Rebellion in the West

By Living Landscape Observer August 17, 2020

Over the past forty years, disputes over federal land management in the western United States have changed dramatically in both scope and scale. What were once largely local and regional conflicts centered on the land itself have now gone national, with actors and implications that extend well beyond the realm of public lands policy – indeed, that encompass questions over the very legitimacy of government itself

Last month, the Living Landscape Observer featured a series of articles on current public lands policy debates, highlighting the challenges facing public lands managers and advocates as the U.S. approaches a presidential election. One piece, for example, highlighted a startling juxtaposition from this past summer – passage of the ground-breaking Great American Outdoors Act, which included full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, with the continued sale and promotion of oil and gas leases on large amounts of public lands acreage throughout the West.

How did we get to this moment? To gain insight into the complex and ongoing history of U.S. public lands, the Living Landscape Observer interviewed Dr. James Skillen, author of the newly published This Land is My Land: Rebellion in the West. Learn more about the book’s content and organization here.

Dr. Skillen is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Calvin University in Michigan and has written extensively on federal land management. In addition to his most recent book, he is also the author of The Nation’s Largest Landlord: The Bureau of Land Management in the American West and Federal Ecosystem Management: Its Rise, Fall, and Afterlife.

During our interview, Dr. Skillen emphasized the links between public lands controversies and other issues of federal authority or oversight, including gun control, religious expression, and private property rights, noting that “public lands decision points are connected to a national political debate over the validity of federal authority.”

He also explained the interplay between passage of new environmental and public lands laws in the 1970s, including the Federal Land Management and Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, and the emergence of the Sagebrush Rebellion movement. Listen to an excerpt below.

Over the past decade, there have been several armed stand-offs between citizens and federal law enforcement officers in states throughout the West. The origins of these at-times violent disputes are also treated extensively in Dr. Skillen’s book, as is the resulting national and, indeed, global media coverage. listen below to learn how one event in 2014 helped inspire him to write the text as well as gain insight into the periodization of public lands conflicts over the past 50 years.

For land managers and others seeking to understand the roots of contemporary conflicts – as well as how the issues they confront are connected to a whole array of other political debates – This Land is My Land is an incredibly useful and engaging read. Learn more about the text, including chapter summaries here.


Interview with Dr. Marcy Rockman

By Living Landscape Observer July 2, 2020

Dr. Marcy Rockman is an archaeologist with experience in national and international climate change policy. Her research focus is how humans gather and share environmental information, especially during colonization and migration, and she’s used this to address situations as diverse as cultural resource management in the American West and homeland security risk communication in Washington, DC. From 2011-2018 she served as the US National Park Service (NPS) Climate Change Adaptation Coordinator for Cultural Resources. She is now working with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) as Scientific Coordinator for a project to improve incorporation of heritage in reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). She also works with the non-profit Co-Equal in Washington, DC to provide climate change research for the U.S. Congress. Dr. Rockman holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona, and B.Sc. in Geology from the College of William and Mary.

LLO: What is the ICOMOS Climate Change and Heritage Working Group?

MR: Briefly as background, ICOMOS is the International Council on Monuments and Sites. It was founded in 1966 for the purpose of fostering and coordinating heritage conservation and preservation around the world. It is headquartered in Paris and now includes national chapters in 107 countries, these are known as national committees. It also has 28 International Scientific Committees and six International Working Groups.

ICOMOS established the Climate Change and Heritage Working Group in 2017 in order connect all of these different parts of ICOMOS with action on climate change that is most relevant for them, and more broadly mobilizing the global heritage community for action on climate change. Projects of the CCHWG includes (but are not limited to):

  • piloting methods for documenting World Heritage sites at risk from climate impacts such as through 3D laser scanning and making digital site models publicly available;
  • publication of Future of Our Pasts report, which is a major outline for the global climate and heritage communities that shows how cultural heritage aligns with major areas of action under the Paris Agreement;
  • and working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to improve integration of information from and about cultural heritage in future IPCC reports.

LLO What role can heritage play in adapting to and addressing climate change and How does cultural heritage preservation intersect with the goals laid out by the Paris Agreement?

MR: I’m going to answer these two questions together.

My starting point is that there is a two-fold connection between cultural heritage and climate change: heritage is affected by climate change and it also holds information and other capacities that are essential to addressing climate change.

When I worked at the National Park Service, climate change work was organized into four primary areas or pillars: science, adaptation, mitigation, and communication. Those two connections of cultural heritage to climate change (impact and information) apply across all four of these areas. I’m used to showing this as a big chart with four main sections, and with each section divided into two columns (one for impacts and the other information), but let me see if I can explain this in words. What this chart would show is:

First section is for science – there are scientific approaches to studying the impacts of climate on heritage, such as effects of drought or more intense rainfall. And adjacent to that, there are also ways of using information from and about heritage places to help inform climate science, such as paleoenvironmental information from bones or shell or landscape change from placement of sites or buildings.

Second section is for adaptation – there are steps to take to adapt management of heritage to climate change, such as monitoring for new or increased environmental stresses or taking steps to make heritage places more resistant or resilient to these environmental stresses, such as elevating buildings, stepping up maintenance, putting in flood protections, and ensuring the site is well documented and has disaster management plans. And adjacent to this, there are ways of learning from heritage about all the ways in which human societies have responded to environmental challenges through time. Key for this section is being able to ask ourselves- what do we see or expect as a successful response? How do we recognize stress?

Third section is for mitigation – there are many actions to take to ensure that the historic built environment and landscapes are part of changes in energy efficiency and transition to renewables. For example, as Carl Elefante has so eloquently said, the greenest building so often is the one that already exists, so making best use of buildings we already have is important for reducing emissions from construction. And next to this, there are ways to be inspired to create new approaches to contemporary mitigation through traditional lower carbon methods of land use and architecture.

Fourth section is for communication – there are diverse ways of building trainings and networks to share information and link together practitioners, communities, researchers around issues in science, adaptation, and mitigation for heritage in relation to climate change. And next to this – perhaps most profoundly, there is the process of developing stories and new understandings of ourselves and the present time from heritage that can shape, inform, and inspire action in all areas of climate change.

While these descriptions aren’t exhaustive, I hope they give you a sense of the range and scope of connections between cultural heritage and climate change.

As it turned out, the Paris Agreement also sets out four main areas of work: Mitigation, Adaptation, Loss and Damage, and High Ambition. High Ambition may be the most unfamiliar term here; it means generating the social and political will and scientific power to meet and exceed the targets of the Paris Agreement.

Having set out the eight areas of connection between cultural heritage and climate change above, it doesn’t take much more work to align all of them to the Paris Agreement goals. First, shift some of the networking aspects of communication to adaptation, and some of the capacity to learn from heritage from science and adaptation to communication. Then, keep the labels Mitigation and Adaptation the same, and change the science section to Loss and Damage and communication section to High Ambition. And that’s it!

What this final alignment shows is – heritage must be part of what the world considers as being lost and damaged by climate change. Under the 2013 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage due to Climate Change, it already is. But it’s important for the heritage community to continue to explore and explain what this means and how such loss and damage, which is not solely economic, may be addressed. As described, heritage has roles to play in adaptation and mitigation. And what I think may be most important, through the stories and creativity heritage holds, it has roles to play in inspiring increased commitments to address climate change, from the community to global scale.

LLO: How do you think climate change will most affect the management of heritage sites? Are any institutions, sites, or countries doing especially well at planning for these impacts already?

MR: I’d like to morph this question a bit to include intersections of Black Lives Matter, climate, and management of heritage sites.

From a practical physical climate standpoint, management of heritage sites will need to recognize that many environmental stresses any given site is already experiencing are likely to continue, but more so. Climate change is bringing changes like greater swings in temperature and more intense rainfall (and sometimes that more intense rainfall comes after more intense drought). New environmental stresses are likely to show up, such as changes in wind patterns and invasive species, longer droughts. Maintenance and ecosystem health have always been important, but they’re even more important now. Damage patterns from events such as Superstorm Sandy show that sites that are in good repair are more likely to survive shocks than sites that are already struggling. Repairing roofs, cleaning gutters, and keeping healthy soils don’t sound sexy, but in a changing climate they are more important than ever.

It is also important for site managers to keep eyes out for what is changing. Each heritage site is unique and how climate change is affecting or will affect it can be hard to predict. So I think careful and thoughtful watching is a crucial part of our toolkit. As is the recognition that we won’t be able to save everything. We never have been able to. So it is important for site management to have firmly in mind: what is most important here? What stories have we been telling here? What stories have not been told but could be? What is essential to conveying the significance of the site and the full range of stories it has to tell?

This is where I confess that for most of my time working on climate change and heritage, I had only looked at its connections to race and justice through the impacts side of climate work (see response to questions 2-3 above). Certainly places significant to Black communities and other communities of color will be affected by climate change, and as these communities are likely to be more vulnerable and in more climate-vulnerable locations, so too will be many elements of their heritage. And absolutely these communities should have key roles in decisions about adaptation and management of these places. But I had not looked closely at connections between climate, heritage, and race from the information side. Now, I see the connections so blazingly clearly. I want and hope for all of us to see them.

One aspect of climate change that I think does not get nearly enough attention either in the broader climate science and policy realms or in the heritage community is that climate change itself has a history. While the temperature targets of the Paris Agreement are phrased as limits of 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, we don’t seem to like to talk about what has lead to our current industrial levels. They didn’t suddenly manifest when we began to measure carbon dioxide levels in the 1950s; rather, they are the outcomes of centuries of intertwined technological, economic, political, intellectual, philosophical, and cultural trends.

In my research on how humans learn unfamiliar landscapes, I’ve looked closely at the English settlement at Jamestown in the early 17th century. Jamestown wasn’t founded on ideas of religious freedom like the slightly later Plymouth colony. Jamestown was founded because investors in London thought they could make a profit from it. And the reason they thought they could make a profit was because of what they thought they understood about the North American climate. They expected the climate at Jamestown to be similar to Spain, which is at about the same latitude, and so it would produce similar ranges of products. This was not the case. While there is much more detail that could be added, the outcome of this was that it was a group of men dependent on continued investment based on a misunderstanding of climate who formed the representative government in 1619 that has ultimately lead to our current government. 1619 is also the year the first slave ships arrived in North America from Africa; indeed, at least some of those first enslaved people were brought to Jamestown.

I’m not the first person to make this connection, and I apologize I don’t have the reference for the person I recently heard it from— the perspective that the environment is foremost a commodity is the same perspective that can set a person as a commodity. And the social and political approaches that come from that that see it as acceptable to sacrifice portions of the environment, whole species, and the atmosphere for the sake of the economy are the approaches that also set it as acceptable to sacrifice the humanity of whole sections of our society for the sake of the economy. As we’re now seeing in the Black Lives Matter protests, we are not going to be able to deal well with systemic racism until we recognize its deep history. And I think the same is true for the history of climate change.

To come back to your original question, what does this mean site management? When I was with the NPS, I set up a project called “Every Place has a Climate Story.” This project set out four themes (change in the material world, change in life ways and experiences, insights from the past, and origins of modern climate change) and a scientific storytelling method that were designed to help park rangers connect heritage, climate, and place in any park. I maintain this is true, including for heritage sites that are not in parks! While I originally designed this project to support interpretation, I think this can also be a useful tool for site managers to work through the elements of their sites that are most important for conveying their stories and, in so doing, identify the ones that should be prioritized for climate vulnerability assessment, careful watching, and adaptation.

In terms of examples of colleagues doing this well, I can’t say enough good things about SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion,, out of the University of St. Andrews. They have been and are doing innovative and essential work with communities to hold conversations about values of and for local heritage and what techniques are most preferred to address climate impacts on local heritage, and then take action with those techniques. The Florida Public Archaeology Network is also running citizen science programs for heritage affected by climate change is working to bring some of the SCAPE-format discussions to the US. In another approach, the Smithsonian and ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) both run rigorous courses in first aid for heritage sites in times of crisis, which is also valuable training.

LLO: Can you point those interested in learning more on this topic to key resources or reports?

MR: I’m pleased to say this literature is growing, but it’s still not nearly enough. ICOMOS is working on a major bibliography of resources, so for the moment I’ll mention just a few.

First the ICOMOS Future of Our Pasts: Engaging cultural heritage in climate action report(2019) is a valuable resource for major linkages between heritage and the Paris Agreement.

This feels like shameless self-promotion, but I need to mention the NPS Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy(2016) as it was designed for site managers and has some practical approaches for assessing vulnerability, thinking through adaptation options, and some approaches for site interpretation too. It also includes a major multi-page chart of climate impacts by type of cultural heritage (archaeology, landscapes, buildings, ethnographic resources, and museum collections). It is available online here:

I’ll also recommend websites of Historic Environment Scotland and Historic England as they have published several major reports, guidance documents, and action plans on climate and heritage.

And finally, I pull Public Archaeology and Climate Change (2017), edited by Tom Dawson, Courtney Nimura, Elías López-Romero, and Marie-Yvane Daire, off my shelf regularly for inspiration in approaches for climate heritage interpretation and communication.


While We Were Not Watching, Part II

By Living Landscape Observer May 17, 2020
Pueblo Bonito
Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Image: NPS

Across the world, daily life has been completely upended. Millions and millions of individuals are living under quarantine, limiting social interaction whenever possible. Unemployment has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. And yet, despite such unprecedented conditions, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) is continuing to make significant decisions on land use across the American West.

One the most visible examples concerns Chaco Culture National Historical Park and nearby lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has refused to extend the public comment period (set to end May 28) for the Draft Farmington Resource Management Plan Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement for the area around the park. The Department has proposed further oil and gas leasing and drilling in the region, which is causing significant concern.

In response to complaints, including from the New Mexico Congressional Delegation, the administration has only agreed to “virtual” public meetings – this despite the fact that many of the constituencies most affected, including the Navajo Nation and nearby Pueblos, lack widespread access to high speed internet and are experiencing one of the most intense outbreaks of Covid-19 in the country. Read an op-ed from U.S. Representative Deb Haaland. Interested in the plan or want to see the web interface for comment, click here. In addition, here is a list of the “virtual” public meetings.

Meanwhile, in Utah, the DOI is continuing with plans to auction off leases for oil and gas development on more than 110,000 acres of land near three Utah national parks, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. Public comment on these actions opens on May 21st, in the midst of a pandemic. Other lease sales have gone ahead in North Dakota, Colorado, and Wyoming.

Public comment on federal actions is critical to the continued protection of natural, historic, and cultural resources – it is also the law. The processes established by NEPA and other 1960s and 1970s-era legislation are already under extreme threat, as we reported last month in our interview with Dr. Tom King. These recent decisions reveal a troubling pattern, which we will continue to call attention to in the coming months.


Dramatic Changes Could be Coming to NEPA

By Living Landscape Observer April 3, 2020
Coal operations. BLM photo.
Coal mining operations on BLM lands. Image: BLM

In January, the Trump administration proposed dramatic changes to the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a landmark law for both natural and cultural resource protection. For more information on what these actions could mean for the protection of the environment and historic sites in the United States, we interviewed Dr. Tom King.

Dr. King has worked with NEPA and NHPA since before they were enacted in the 1960s. He holds a PhD in Anthropology and is the author of a dozen textbooks on aspects of cultural/heritage resource management. From 1979-89 he headed the project review offices of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and has also worked with the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Interior, and Veterans Affairs and the General Services Administration, but his major work today is with American Indian tribes and local communities. He can be reached at

LLO: For readers unfamiliar with NEPA, can you briefly explain its significance? 

TK: NEPA articulates POLICIES requiring the federal government to protect the environment as it carries out its affairs, but these are pretty generally ignored. The NEPA regulations, issued in 1978, govern how federal agencies are supposed to assess the environmental impacts of things they propose to do before they do them – to look before they leap

LLO: Can you describe a project /site you worked on / reviewed that was affected by the NEPA process?

TK: Around the turn of the century, there was a proposal to put in a zinc mine in a pristine landscape of cultural importance to the Sokaogon Chippewa Community in Mole Lake, Wisconsin. The project needed a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, so it had to be reviewed under the NEPA regulations, and also under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

Mole Lake landscape. Image: Tom King

The Mole Lake Community was able to show – through the very public NEPA process — that the impacts of the mine on the cultural landscape would be devastating. That might or might not have been enough to persuade the Corps not to issue the permit, but it persuaded the mining company that the public relations costs would be too great.

They gave up and signed the mineral rights over to the Community. That’s an unusual “pure” win, but there are many other cases where tribes and other communities have used NEPA, and NHPA, to reduce the impacts of projects on landscapes and other places they value.

LLO: The Trump Administration has proposed a large number of changes to NEPA implementation. Can you highlight those actions that could potentially have the most impact.

There are lots, and many are subtle. They’re laid out in proposed rulemaking that would make global changes to the NEPA regulations.

The Trump administration essentially treats the process of environmental impact assessment (EIA) under NEPA as a troublesome procedural hoop through which project proponents have to jump, while exposing themselves to bothersome comments from the public – which they can ignore, but it takes time, and what a bother that is! So every chance they get in their rulemaking, they limit public involvement, simplify procedures for project proponents while complicating them for opponents, and so on.

The biggest of the big, I suppose – worst among equals, if you will – maybe are these:

  • Setting things up so an agency can declare a project to be not “major” and thus drop it out of review under NEPA altogether;
  • Effectively eliminating consideration of “indirect” or “secondary” impacts – the things that don’t happen right on the project site on the day of construction, but occur down the road through erosion, sedimentation, population changes, changes in land use, and so on.
  • Eliminating consideration of cumulative impacts – will the project contribute to urban sprawl, for example, or to ongoing air or water pollution, or to gentrification.

LLO: The Trump administration wants to shorten the timeline of the NEPA process to either one or two years. Why is this a big change?

TK: That’s not exactly what they propose; it’s more complicated, and this gets to a bigger issue. The NEPA process springs from the 1969 statutory requirement that each federal agency prepare a “statement” of the environmental impacts of any action it proposes to undertake. That’s called an “Environmental Impact Statement” (EIS), and the Trump administration apparently thinks – correctly, I believe – that many EISs are way too long and cumbersome and take too much time. So what they propose to do – rather than figuring out WHY they’re too long and take too much time – is to impose page limits and get them done within two years.

Another kind of study, the “Environmental Assessment” (EA) is often done to decide whether an EIS is necessary; the administration would like EAs to be shorter than EISs and to take less time. Not unreasonable ideas in themselves, but simpleminded. We really ought to be looking at why EISs and EAs get too fat, and what can be done about it. Beyond that, we should look at how the technical requirements of NEPA and its regulations relate to Congressional intent, and for that matter at how the intent of Congress in 1969 squares with today’s reality. Are we perhaps too fixated on preparing the descriptive “statements” required by the 1969 law, at the expense of recognizing and resolving environmental impacts?

LLO: How would the ability of the public to comment be affected?

TK: Throughout the administration’s proposed rulemaking, there’s vague, hortatory language about public involvement, but specifics are thin, and wherever possible, time frames have been compressed and limits have been imposed to constrain public comment. There’s a systematic effort to shift the burden for developing alternatives from the project proponent to the public.

Moreover, the administration doesn’t propose that agencies DO anything with comments. They can essentially receive them and ignore them. This, it has to be acknowledged, is no different from the case under the regulations as they’ve existed since 1978, but it’s an insulting, anti-democratic condition that really needs to be corrected.

LLO: Can you comment on how accounting for climate change effects might change as a result of these actions?

TK: The Obama administration directed federal agencies doing NEPA analyses to address how their proposed actions might relate to climate change. Would putting X amount of gunk into the atmosphere from a proposed new fracking field contribute to effects on the climate, for instance, and if so what could be done to mitigate them? In its January rulemaking, the Trump administration has said, in essence, “don’t bother.” 

This led 14 members of the U.S. Senate, including current and recent presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker, to sign a strong letter of opposition to the rulemaking on February 27. The Senators pointed particularly to the rulemaking’s deletion of cumulative effect as a subject that must be considered under NEPA. Climate change effects almost by definition ARE cumulative; the gunk pumped into the atmosphere by this year’s fracking field might not be so bad if it weren’t for the gunk already belched into it by mining and power plants and automobiles, or that’s likely to be belched into it by the next generation of industrial developments. 

But agencies on the whole don’t like to trouble themselves with cumulative impacts, because they’re complicated, ambiguous, and frankly rather depressing. So — assuming the administration puts its rulemaking in place, and assuming it wins a second term in office, I imagine agency officials will cheerfully ignore climate change along with other cumulative effects in their NEPA analyses, as the seawater rises around their necks, the burning forests collapse on their heads, and novel new viruses make happy homes in their bodies.

LLO: Any other comments you would like to add. 

TK: Luckily, there are members of Congress – not only the 14 Senators but many members of the House – who are very concerned about the administration’s shenanigans. This story is far from over.


Washington Watch

By Living Landscape Observer February 27, 2020
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt joins President Donald Trump at a press conference announcing sweeping changes to the National Environmental Policy Act. Image: DOI

FY 2021 Trump Administration Budget Proposal

In February 2020, the Trump Administration released its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. As in past years, the environment and the humanities fared poorly. The President’s budget contains recommendations for Congress, but ultimately it is the House and the Senate that determine the final spending bills. These must be signed by the President, however, which can lead to stand offs, such as the 2019 federal government shutdown.

So, what did the FY 2021 budget proposal contain? A few key items are listed below:

  • Elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, Institute for Museum and Library Services, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  • Severe reduction in monies for land acquisition by the Interior Department via the Land and Water Conservation Fund
  • $600 million in cuts to more than 50 programs managed by the Environmental Protection Agency
  • Over $580 million in cuts to the National Park Service budget
  • Major cuts to programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at a time when its research is critical to understanding the effects of climate change

Staffing Vacancies at the National Park Service

A statement from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) highlights the leadership vacuum at the National Park Service. Key findings include:

  • No permanent National Park Service director since 2017
  • Two-thirds (10 of 15) deputy, assistant, and associate National Park Service director slots vacant or filled by an “acting” appointee
  • Numerous superintendent positions at park units across the system filled by acting appointees

A statement on the vacancies was also released by the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks

Changes Proposed to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The Trump Administration has proposed significant changes to the implementation of NEPA. Among the many modifications, the Administration seeks to limit the type of federal actions subject to NEPA review, shorten study periods, eliminate the requirement to consider the “cumulative effects” of an action, and limit the page length of Environmental Impacts Statements (EIS) and other reports linked to the NEPA process.

For more much coverage and analysis see: a story in the Washington Post; recent congressional testimony by the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks; a story on three specific projects by E&E news; a blog post on what the proposed changes could mean for the climate from Yale Climate Connections; and a link to the Council on Environmental Quality explaining the Administration’s rationale.


An Uncertain Future: Charting the Bureau of Land Management’s Landscape Scale Work

By Living Landscape Observer August 13, 2019

Over the past two decades, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has dramatically expanded its involvement in planning and conservation on a landscape scale. It has done this in partnership with other federal agencies, state government, Indigenous nations, and non-profit organizations.

During the past two years, however, much of this work has been refocused, especially in the realms of planning, partnerships, and science. The future is now uncertain with competing interests making predictions difficult. The administration tends to defer to state and local government, over federal management, but still aims to prioritize the needs of industry, even when these goals conflict with local prerogative.

Infographic created by the BLM detailing the scope of its management responsibilities.
Infographic created by the BLM detailing the scope of its management responsibilities. Source:

To complicate matters further, in mid-July, the Department of the Interior announced that BLM headquarters would be moving from Washington, D.C. to Grand Junction, Colorado. An official statement from DOI leadership touted the plan as a means to improve efficiency and decrease costs. The underlying motivations behind the decision, however, are potentially far more worrisome.  

Only a small percentage of BLM employees currently work in the Washington office, about 400 out of a national staff of roughly 10,000. The main functions of these workers are planning, policy, budget, and legislative affairs. The proposed relocation would scatter the bureau’s Washington D.C. based employees nationwide, sending them to state offices as well as to the new, much smaller headquarters in Colorado. Critics argue that the plan is, at its base, an attempt to weaken oversight of public lands and shift authority from career staff to political appointees in the Interior Department – with the end goal of expediting energy and mineral development and commercial grazing. 

What does all this mean for the agency’s large landscape initiatives?

In order to get insight into the future of this work and the potential implications of the BLM headquarters move, the Observer talked to Kit Muller. Recently retired from the BLM after a 38-year career with the bureau, Muller spent much of the past two decades working to better understand (and respond to) the impacts of landscape-scale changes on the American West, including climate change, wild land fire, invasive species, urban growth and industrial development. The following is a summary of our conversation, edited for clarity. 

Many of our readers may be more familiar with other public lands agencies like the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service. Can you tell us a little bit about the BLM?

The BLM was created in 1946, following the merger of DOI’s General Land Office (GLO) and the U.S. Grazing Service. It manages about 10% of the U.S. land area, with most of that concentrated in 12 western states, including Alaska. Created in 1812, the GLO was the oldest land management agency in the U.S.  For most of its history, it was dedicated to surveying the public domain and transferring it to private parties.

The BLM has a dual mission – multiple use and sustained yield, as mandated by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. The multiple use aspect has long been dominant. With its roots in the GLO, the BLM has traditionally managed use rights, not resources. It was only with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other environmental and preservation laws that the bureau really began to consider the impacts that use rights could have on the environment. 

Could you tell us more about the bureau’s large landscape work?

Since the second half of the George W. Bush administration, the bureau’s landscape work has been expanding. This picked up significantly during the Obama administration, but has now slowed considerably under current DOI leadership. 

Four areas should be highlighted. 

1) Planning

Before the 2000s, BLM rarely did planning on a landscape scale. The one exception was the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP). Adopted in 1994 under the Clinton Administration, the NWFP covered BLM lands (along with lands managed by the USFS) in western Washington, Oregon, and northern California. Drafted in response to the listing of the northern spotted owl as an endangered species, the plan forced the bureau to think on a bigger scale and to work with a range of partners. 

More recently, the bureau built on this work to collaborate on three additional landscape-scale planning efforts – the Greater Sage Grouse conservation plans, the plan for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, and the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in California.

In each of these cases, the bureau had to work with diverse partners from multiple levels of government, the private sector, and nonprofits. For example, the historic Sage Grouse plans (since altered under the current administration) involved the BLM, the USFWS, the U.S. Forest Service, state agencies in 11 states, and private landowners across a 173 million acre landscape. 

2) Data Collection

At the same time that the bureau expanded its planning efforts, it also began to take data collection more seriously. Before 2004, data was primarily collected on a project-by-project basis – for an individual grazing allotment, for example, a mine site or well-pad – rarely systematically across a landscape. That changed owing to pressure and encouragement from the OMB as well as internal support. OMB said the BLM needed to be more systematic in its monitoring activities and offered funds to the bureau to get started. Partnering with ARS, NRCS, USFS, USGS, and EPA, over the last decade the BLM has established core indicators, standard data collection methods, and statistically based sampling frameworks for monitoring.

The results were pretty astounding. BLM now has standardized data on the aquatic and terrestrial condition of much of the public lands it manages This allows managers to make decisions based on standardized data from the field in addition to relying on their own expertise and experience. More training is still needed to apply this across-the-board and to discuss its importance to partners. BLM is also now collecting data about the disturbance “footprint” associated with the projects it authorizes.

3) Science 

Initially recommended during the George W. Bush administration, a National Science Committee was established during the Obama Administration involving managers from many levels of the bureau. Its goal was to advance science in the agency and ensure that best practices were integrated into decision-making on a daily basis.

4) Partnerships

The idea of cooperative conservation gained significant traction in the bureau over the last two decades. In addition to the partnerships involved in the above mentioned planning efforts, the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC) are a prime great example of this.  The 22 LCCs brought together federal,and state, governments, along with Indigenous nations, nonprofits, and universities to work together on a landscape scale. Addressing climate change was one primary aim of this initiative.

How was the current administration affected these efforts and what will be the impact of the proposed headquarters relocation? 

Right now, we are in a period of commodity ascendency. This is not the first time this was occurred. There was a period of commodity ascendency under Interior Secretary James Watt in the early 1980s and then again when Vice President Dick Cheney played a dominant role in public lands management in the first term of the George W. Bush administration.

So far, the current administration has re-done the plans for the National Petroleum Reserve and for the Greater Sage Grouse. They have also been promoting oil and gas development to the detriment of conservation and other uses. The role of BLM career staff in headquarters has been diminished significantly. Career managers and program leads are not privy to many conversations and are sidelined in the decision-making process – one might say that the goal is to make the BLM headquarters irrelevant. So many of career staff members are in acting positions or on detail, expertise is being lost. Also, these individuals’ work on policy or budget development has been significantly curtailed. The Office of the Secretary is now routinely reviewing documents that were once approved without any Washington Office review. This is also a big change. 

The landscape scale work is in jeopardy. Almost all the work of the LCC’s has been eliminated under the current administration. Plans are being re-done with significantly less emphasis on landscape considerations of condition and risk. The systematic collection and use of environmental data in decision-making are not management priorities. Without a well staffed and functioning Headquarters Office, it will be exceedingly difficult for the BLM to effectively participate in any regional or national interagency and intergovernmental conversations about natural resource management.