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US Public Lands: Where to Now?

By Brenda Barrett August 3, 2020

The government of the United States of America owns about 640 million acres of land or about 28% of the total land mass of the country. This is our great legacy of public lands. However, especially for those who do not live among them, these lands are subject to many misconceptions.  For example, I am always surprised that even my graduate students think that most public lands are National Parks when actually they are only 3.7 percent of the country.  Many people do not know the difference between the Forest Service and the Park Service. They think that all National Monuments are National Parks. They have never even heard of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), let alone its multiple use mission. No wonder getting everyone’s attention on the issues facing public lands is so hard. 

Want to learn more? REI, the recreational equipment company, has developed a handy, dandy guide to understanding public lands.  

Courtesy of USGS

Once you grasp the scope of the public landscape, then those interested in landscape conservation might want to wade into the weeds of what is really happening on our public lands. As we head towards the 2020 elections, this is very important and here are just a few issues we need to keep an eye on.

Some good news

Caring for our public lands takes money and, over the past decades, there has been systematic disinvestment in maintenance and improvements of our public resources. However, with the recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, there is finally some good news. For the first time, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) will be permanently funded at $900 million annually. The act also established the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund and provides dedicated funding to address the deferred maintenance at the National Park Service and for other public lands such as the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education. Specifically,  it would queue up $6.5 billion for the National Park Service to use in tackling backlogged maintenance work.

How will the money be distributed across the 419 units of the National Park System? Well, according to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), Yosemite National Park alone had roughly $645 million in backlogged maintenance at the end of FY18, Yellowstone’s tally was $585.5 million, and the National Mall and Memorial Parks had nearly $655 million. Those three units could use the first $1.5 billion installment. That does not even count the staggering cost to rebuild parkways, roads and bridges throughout the National Park System. So, the money will go fast, but, all in all, this is very good news.

Not So Good News

The current administration has been pushing energy development through an aggressive leasing program particularly for oil and gas on public lands usually under the control of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This action will, in effect, will lock up these lands for one use – energy extraction- for often ten or more years. It also will have an adverse effect on the cultural and natural resources on BLM lands as well as on the landscape of adjacent national parks. Just one example, in the fall of 2020, the BLM plans to offer 110,000 acres for lease adjacent to Canyonlands National Park in Utah. For more information listen to the National Park Traveler’s interview with Erika Pollard staff at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Courtesy NPCA

One of the most controversial actions of the administration has been the reduction of the boundaries of our national monuments.  Two of the national monuments, in particular Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both in southern Utah were reduced by nearly two million acres. Lands rich in archaeological, paleontological, cultural, and natural significance are now open to open to uranium mining, oil and gas drilling, road construction, and the use of mechanized vehicles. In February 2020, BLM finalized plans to open lands formerly in the two monuments to oil and gas leasing. 

The list goes on and on, but the bottom line is that public lands are under greater threat than ever and the next six months will be crtical. 

Where to Now?

Now is the time that many who care about our public lands and landscape scale work are thinking about transition. What might the next four years look like. Depending on the outcome of the national elections, it may be more of the above. Or if there is a change in leadership, what are a few ideas for the future?

Reform the system of oil and gas leasing – The Oil and Gas leasing system on public lands is one hundred years old and needs to rethought.  Legislation has already been introduced to require the BLM to issue all oil and gas leases through competitive auction, ending inefficient noncompetitive leasing. These leases are commonly purchased by speculators and tie up public lands for up to 10 years. In addition, safeguards should be put in place to prevent leasing around National Parks and other heritage sites. Action on these issues and more is needed

Roll back bad decisions – Some candidates include the boundary reductions for National Monuments and National Marine Reserves, the changes to the National Environmental Policy Act that reduce transparency and public involvement, and the many policy decisions that reduce protection for endangered species and their habitat. And of course, adopting adequate budgets. The National Park Service will not be able to tackle needed maintenance and repairs without the staff to do the work.  While this sounds straight forward, it is a big lift.

Partner with State Conservation Agencies – Over the past four years former landscape scale initiatives at the Federal level like the Collaborative Conservation approach and the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives have been abandoned and defunded. However, many states have continued some form of landscape scale work. In addition, states will now be benefitting from significantly more money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. National conservation efforts should reach out to states as full partners and recognize their important role.

Focus on equity and inclusion – As the country grapples with the difficult issues of race and class, so too has the conservation movement. Conversations are happening all over the country and there are no easy answers. One step in the right direction is the work of the Network for Landscape Conservation’s Catalysts Fund, which reserves some of its funds for indigenous led conservation partnerships. Also, being proposed are ideas for pandemic recovery efforts such as investing in green infrastructure in disadvantaged communities and workforce development.

In August 2016, the Living Landscape Observer published an article titled Landscape Conservation the Next Four Years. It has been interesting to look back on its predictions. One of which stated that “The greatest divergence between the two parties (Democrats and Republicans) is the protection of public lands.” It went on to say, “it is a fair to read the Republican platform as saying that public lands might receive a lot less protection.” This has turned out to be true. Let’s see if we can do a better job in the next four years. 

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