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Listening to Zinke: The Landscape Ahead?

By Brenda Barrett January 28, 2017
Gold Butte Nevada Photo courtesy of the Department of the Interior

Gold Butte Nevada
Photo courtesy of the Department of the Interior

At his confirmation hearing on January 17, 2017, Representative Ryan Zinke (R MT) spoke up before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee and shared his vision for the position of Secretary of Interior. The leadership of the Department of Interior is central to the future of protecting the nation’s landscapes. Those who care about conservation at scale, protected areas, and our cultural heritage were listening carefully to what he had to say.

What did we hear? Zinke kicked off his opening remarks by declaring his unabashed admiration of Theodore Roosevelt as his conservation hero and he made historical references to Pinchot and Muir in framing his answers to other questions from members of the committee. So far so good,  he then laid out his top priorities for the department as:

The first is to restore trust by working with rather than against local communities and states. I fully recognize that there is distrust, anger, and even hatred against some federal management policies. Being a listening advocate rather than a deaf adversary is a good start.

 Second, is to prioritize the estimated $12.5 billion in backlog of maintenance and repair in our national parks. The president-elect is committed to a jobs and infrastructure bill, and I am going to need your help in making sure that bill includes shoring up our Nations treasures.

 And third, to ensure the professionals on the front line, our rangers and field managers, have the right tools, right resources, and flexibility to make the right decisions that give a voice to the people they serve.

For National Park advocates, his words held out real hope that promises on the campaign trail about infrastructure investments might be turned into real benefits for our aging park system. Although Zinke added a dose of reality, stating that while it is his job to convince the new president that parks should be high on the administration’s agenda, congress needs to step as well. And he asked for the committee’s help in getting the necessary funds to tackle the backlog. Drawing on his military background (he served for 26 years as a Navy Seal) he noted, “we can fly the helicopter, but you must supply the gas”.

It is also interesting that Representative Zinke’s other two priorities dealt with the human dimension of delivering the department’s mission – building trust with people on the ground is clearly influenced by his western perspective issue and authorizing the “ground troops” to implement national policy is good tactical leadership. He talked a fair bit about collaboration as a strategy and his strong support for local partners coming together to tackle conservation issues. He specifically said that to make this approach work collaborative planning needs to be incentivized. It also needs to be based on science and set targets to measure success.. On partnership programs, he emphasized his backing for permanent and full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and also spoke to the importance of trails both on and off public land. Overall he emphasized the theme of consultation, collaboration and communication

At the hearing Representative Zinke stated his unequivocal support for keeping public land public.  When specifically asked, he stated, “I am absolutely against the transfer or sale of public land”. It should be noted that he has put his money where his mouth is on this issue.  Last year he left his post on the GOP platform writing committee, after the group included language in support of transferring federal lands to the states.

These are positive indicators, but one of the big questions both in the hearing room and on everyone’s mind is his position on the Antiquities Act and more specifically the recent Obama administration’s designations in Nevada and Utah. When queried, he said that the better way to designate national monuments is with the support of the adjacent communities, the states and congressional delegation. On the question of whether recently designated monuments could be de-designated, he said that was for the lawyers to decide. And under questioning, he agreed that no such process explicitly described in the act. However, he has already committed to visit the 1.35 million acres of federal land that make up Bears Ears Butte in southeastern Utah and about 300,000 acres of Gold Butte in Nevada, northeast of Las Vegas. These recently designated monuments are exemplars of the scale need to conserve our natural  and cultural heritage. How the department position on  these iconic western landscapes will be an important signpost for the future.

On hot button issues Zinke tried to strike a measured tone. When asked about renewable energy and traditional energy development on public land, he said “all of the above’ and expressed his support for a strong economy and energy independence. On climate change he agreed that the climate is changing, but did not attribute any definitive causation.

All things considered, conservationists should take heart from Zinke’s opening words at the hearing: Upfront, I am an unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt and believe he had it right when he placed under federal protection millions of acres of federal lands and set aside much of it as National Forests. Today, much of those lands provide American’s the opportunity to hike, fish, camp, recreate and enjoy the great outdoors.

But here are some concluding thoughts. In the next days and months, the Department of Interior will be flooded with political operatives and representatives of energy development schemes all seeking to catch the ear of the new Secretary of Interior.  They will not be interested in the words of Teddy Roosevelt or the values that public lands offer the American people. Representative Zinke needs to hear loud and clear that his vision is strongly supported by land conservationists, sportsmen, heritage areas managers, and everyday citizens or his department will be swamped by competing agendas.


The 2016 Federal Budget: How did Large Landscapes Fare?

By Brenda Barrett January 11, 2016

small-logo-lighthouseAfter months of uncertainty, weeks of negotiations and two short-term extensions to keep the government open, Congress passed and the President signed the 2009 page omnibus spending Bill, titled the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016. How did federal initiatives that support landscape scale work and fund our natural and cultural conservation program fare?


The Land and Water Conservation Fund

Ding, Ding, Ding! Only three dings as Congress limited reauthorization of the now 50-year old fund to just three years. However, the good news is that it is still around and with $450 million allocated for the coming fiscal year much good work can be accomplished at the state and national level. Landscape work was specifically recognized in an appropriations for a number of large scale projects including an appropriation for the Rivers of the Chesapeake. This Collaborative Landscape proposal received $11 million for land conservation in the Chesapeake region and $2 million for supporting a range of public access and conservation efforts along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. It is estimated that this targeted funding will protect 2,100 acres of land in this threatened watershed.

The Historic Preservation Fund

small-logo-bridgeNot quite such good news to kick off the celebration of the fiftieth Anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. The appropriations bill did not include the reauthorization of the Historic Preservation Fund, which expired on September 30th. 2015. This means that action on a bill (HR 2817) to reauthorize the fund will have to wait till the New Year. However, there was some good news. Overall the bill funds the HPF at $65.41 million, an increase of $9 million over FY15 enacted levels.

The funding breakdown for State and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices is as follows: $46.925 million for SHPOs (equal to FY15 enacted levels),
$9.985 million for THPOs ($1 million above FY15 enacted levels),
$8 million in grants to preserve the sites and stories of the Civil Rights Movement and $500,000 in grants for underrepresented communities.

The National Heritage Areas

Generally good news as funding remained level at $19,821 million. Since the program has been without strong administration support, just holding on to a level appropriation has been an annual struggle. In addition the 2016 act extended the funding authorization for three areas and increased the funding authorization caps for four other areas. Overall Congress showed an interest in sustaining the program.

One twist to watch is the transfer of $625,000 funding that in the past went to the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor   from the national heritage areas program account to the new Blackstone Valley Historic Park. As for now the heritage corridor and the new park are working closely together. The heritage corridor’s level of staffing and on the ground facilities like visitor centers are a boon to a park that is just finding its feet. How will blurring of the lines between what has been traditionally been an external program and a new unit of the national park system work out in the long run? Since this is a year-to-year arrangement, we have to wait and see.

The Landscape Conservation Cooperatives

small-logo-archaeologistFive years ago the Department of the Interior launched the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC) to better integrate science and management to address climate change and other landscape scale issues through collaborative networks that are grounded in science. As one might imagine congressional funding for this program has been a point of contention. Despite threats to severely reduce or even eliminate the program, the final appropriation for the 2016 budget the LCC was only reduced by $1 million in the Cooperative Landscapes account — from $13,988,000 in FY15 to $12,988,0.  The LCC budget in the Adaptive Science account remains at the FY15 level — $10,517,000. So the final outcome should be seen as a win for the landscape approach to resource management. To learn more about the LCCs read the just released National Academy report A Review of the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.  

Overall this is good news considering the current congressional environment. Can we see any patterns in these encouraging outcomes? Well a few:

  • The public sees such programs, particularly the long established ones, as beneficial and conserving the things they care about.
  • Advocacy is an essential part of program survival. High marks go to the coalition to reauthorize the Land and Water program. They have had an impressive ground game and media presence.
  • While not conclusive, positive evaluations of the program such as the recent study on the LCCs and the reports on the National Heritage Areas might have turned the tide on the funding issue.

Readers do you have any other observation? All good ideas welcomed as next year will not be any easier!

PS If you like the posters celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, you can order them at the Preservation 50 web site!  




Half-century Legacy of LWCF at Risk

By Eleanor Mahoney August 31, 2015
President Johnson signing the the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act in 1964. Photo: National Park Service

President Johnson signing the the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act in 1964. Photo: National Park Service

This year marked the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, an occasion first celebrated in 1970. It also marked the 45th anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA as well as the 45th anniversary of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the government body most widely associated with monitoring and enforcing regulations governing air and water quality as well as pollution and its effects. It is not surprising then, that the 1970s are often known as the environmental decade and that the years of the Nixon presidency (1969-1974) are usually those most often associated with the implementation of an environmental agenda, especially at the federal level.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon’s predecessor in the oval office, also had a robust conservation vision, driven, in large part, by his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, as well as his influential Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Many National Seashores and Lakeshores, like Indiana Dunes, Point Reyes and Fire Island, gained designation during the Johnson Administration as did National Parks such as Canyonlands and North Cascades. Beautification initiatives also gained widespread support, including the famous highway clean-up / planting efforts of the First Lady.

Additionally, the role of non-governmental organizations shifted greatly during this period. NGOs expanded their influence and reach, as advocates challenged the public sector on many of its policies, especially in the realms of water management (ex. dam building in the western U.S.) and regulation of industry and industrial contaminants. Passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 is perhaps the best known instance of the increasing influence of citizen-driven conservation and environmental initiatives.

As the deadline for re-authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) grows ever closer, it is worth considering just how groundbreaking the original piece of legislation really was – since its now 51-year history perhaps leads us to take its historical significance for granted. At the time of the Fund’s establishment, however, members of the Johnson administration knew its importance. For example, in a 1966 memo on achievements in the areas of conservation and natural beauty sent from Secretary Udall to Joseph Califano, Special Assistant to the President, Udall commented on the LWCF Act:

“This legislation has set in motion a comprehensive and far-reaching outdoor recreation program by the States and the Federal Government, which will reap tremendous recreational benefits for all Americans. It constitutes a landmark in the outdoor recreation and conservation fields. It will provide much needed funds for the States, on a matching basis, and for the Federal Government, for outdoor recreation and endangered species of fish and wildlife.” (1)

Before the early 1960s, the federal government played a very limited role in funding land conservation outside of federally owned lands, which were predominately west of the Mississippi River. Providing opportunities for outdoor recreation, especially in areas close to urban centers, was left largely in the hands of state and local government, entities that often struggled to find adequate resources. LWCF, along with an Urban Open Space Program funded by the Housing and Home Finance Agency (later HUD), created an entirely new pool of funds for the protection of landscapes significant for their ecological and cultural values (which were, of course, often tied together).

These programs were not perfect. Urban areas, in particular, continued to receive proportionately less funds over time, though some efforts have been made to address this imbalance. Additionally, the LWCF’s chief funding source, royalties from off shore drilling, is ironic at best, especially given the ever more dramatic effects of climate change on the planet. The pursuit of other revenue sources must be prioritized moving forward.

Nonetheless, the achievements of the LWCF are impressive, over 5 million acres of federal land protected and over 40,000 projects supported on the state side of funding, just to name a few of the more notable statistics. With one month to go before funding expires, it is time for Congress to act to ensure that this “comprehensive and far-reaching outdoor recreation program” to quote Stewart Udall continues to play a key role in conservation for at least another half-century.


1. WHITE HOUSE CENTRAL FILES, SUBJECT FILE: Memo, Stewart Udall to Joseph Califano, 2/9/66, Ex NR, Box 5, WHCF, LBJ Library.



What Would Lady Bird Do?

By Brenda Barrett October 30, 2012

Texas! What better place to talk about the next fifty years of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This is the home turf of Lyndon B. Johnson, the president who signed the original law back in 1965. LBJ had a strong record of caring for the nation’s natural resources, but it is no secret that he was inspired to do so by one of great conservation figures of the 20th century, his wife Lady Bird Johnson. Today he is commemorated in the Lone Star state with a presidential library and the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Site. Lady Bird has left Texans with a living legacy, Austin’s Town Lake, now Lady Bird Lake, and the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, a leading center of sustainable green practices.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird.

The Lands and Water Conservation Fund has done a great deal of good. Funding acquisition of public lands for the National Park Service and other federal agencies and allocating much needed matching funds to state’s for parks and outdoor recreation projects. The state of Texas alone has received over $177 million dollars. Some of it even went to fund the development of Ladybird Lake’s outstanding trail system.

However, 1979 marked the high water mark of funding for Land and Water for both the Federal government and State programs and the program was completely zeroed out during the Reagan years. For decades, the conservation community has launched campaign after campaign to re-fund LWCF with only modest results. These stresses have taken their toll on the relationship between the federal and state partners, who have to share in the limited funds from the LWCF pie, with the state partners represented by NASORLO* and NASPD** on one side of the table and the federal side represented most recently by the Land and Water Coalition on the other. There was annual jostling for limited dollars.

So it is no wonder that when a recent opportunity for more funding came with a new funding formula that seemed to favor one side more than the other, well there was a lot to talk about. At the recent NASRLO annual meeting Oct 1-4 in Austin, state representatives met to hash out the issues past and present. Mickey Fearn, Deputy Director of the National Park Service, asked everyone to think about the future “What would we all want the LWCF to look like if we were inventing it today?”

Now that is a good question and we all might take a lesson from Ladybird. Work locally, share the wisdom, and seek powerful allies.

* NASORLO – National Association of State Liaison Officers

** NASPD – National Association of State Park Directors