HomePoliticsThe Battle Over The Future Of America’s Wildly Popular Public Lands

The Battle Over The Future Of America’s Wildly Popular Public Lands

Days after former President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) reintroduced a bill to sell off 3.3 million acres of what he called “excess” federal land in 10 Western states. Conservationists, hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts revolted and Chaffetz pulled the legislation nine days later, citing concerns among his constituents.

It was just one of many times in recent years when attempts to pawn off, privatize or weaken safeguards for these public assets were met with fierce opposition. Americans, as poll after poll confirms, overwhelmingly support federally owned lands. They also want to see them protected, fueling growing calls for better conservation and management of U.S. lands and waters.

Conservatives have been forced to largely abandon support for outright transfer and sale of public lands ― at least publicly. Instead, critics of the federal government have embraced savvier tactics and misinformation in an effort to achieve many of the same industry-friendly goals that would come with stripping lands from federal control.

The state of Utah filed a lawsuit in August challenging President Joe Biden’s decision to restore the boundaries of two national monuments that former President Donald Trump dismantled in 2017. The state bizarrely argued that stripping monument status was actually necessary to protect the culturally rich landscapes. A Texas-based property rights group, American Stewards of Liberty, is engaged in a disinformation campaign against Biden’s goal of protecting 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, falsely claiming it is a “land grab” in disguise. And this month, dozens of Republicans introduced a permitting reform bill that, among other things, would give states the authority to manage oil, gas and other energy development across the federal estate ― a de facto transfer of control that would establish federal lands in name only.

Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Colorado-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities, said that while “the Jason Chaffetzes of the world realized their political positions are dead ends,” the threats to public lands haven’t gone away.

“The attack is happening behind the scenes,” he said.

Nearly two years into his term, Biden’s public lands record has received mixed reviews. On one hand, environmentalists and public lands advocates applauded the administration’s climate and conservation goals and its reversal of many of its predecessor’s actions. On the other, some green groups voiced frustration that Biden has yet to fulfill his campaign promises to halt new fossil fuel development on federal lands or to establish new national parks and monuments to help combat the climate change and biodiversity crisis. A Center for Western Priorities poll found in May that 66% of voters in four Western swing states ― Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico ― think the Biden administration has not done enough to designate and protect new public lands and monuments.

Saturday is National Public Lands Day, an annual observance of America’s natural heritage that is marked by free entry to national parks, along with volunteer cleanup and restoration events. On the 29th annual celebration, HuffPost looks at where the fight for public lands stands and what lies ahead.

A ‘Momentous’ Time

Federal public lands, which make up approximately 28% of the U.S., will likely prove key to achieving the Biden administration’s goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade. Approximately one-quarter of all U.S. emissions come from fossil fuel extraction on public lands.

Gas rigs line the Pinedale Anticline on federal and private land near Pinedale, south of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images

Recognizing the opportunity, Biden campaigned on a promise to ban new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters. Upon taking office, he signed an executive order that froze new leasing pending the outcome of a review of the federal leasing program. But his effort to curb future federal fossil fuel production has hit several roadblocks, including rulings by Trump-appointed judges, a global energy crisis driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, oddly enough, Democrats’ new landmark climate change law.

Passed into law last month, the so-called Inflation Reduction Act is the nation’s largest-ever investment to confront planetary warming, with nearly $370 billion in climate and clean energy spending. But securing support from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a staunch ally of fossil fuels, meant the bill included several concessions for the industry. It not only reinstated oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico that a federal judge vacated in June, but mandated future offshore fossil fuel auctions in the Gulf and Alaska’s Cook Inlet. It also prevented federal regulators from approving renewable energy leases without first offering a certain number of acres to oil and gas companies.

Along with demands to use his executive authority to curb future drilling, Biden is under mounting pressure to preserve and restore forests and other carbon-rich ecosystems and to designate new federally protected sites. Last year, Biden followed through on restoring the three national monuments that Trump dismantled: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, as well as Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the East Coast. But he has yet to create a monument of his own. (To be fair, presidents often wait to establish their monument legacy until later in their terms.)

There are signs that could soon change. Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that Biden is likely to designate Camp Hale, a World War II Army training facility near Leadville, Colorado, as a new monument in the coming weeks. And Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has toured other high-priority sites in recent months, including Castner Range, a 7,000-acre former military weapon testing facility east of El Paso, and Avi Kwa Ame, an area of the Mojave Desert in Nevada that is sacred to 12 Native American tribes.

An analysis this week from the Hispanic Access Foundation and the left-leaning Center for American Progress found that protecting Castner Range would help address the lack of access to natural areas for Latino and low-income communities in El Paso. The landscape is currently blanketed with unexploded ordnance from years of military testing and remains closed to the public.

In a letter to Biden ahead of Public Lands Day, 100 environmental organizations urged the president to designate a 450,000-acre monument at Avi Kwa Ame.

Interior Department spokesperson Tyler Cherry declined to comment on whether new monument designations are imminent but said the agency knows that “nature offers some of the most cost-effective ways to address the climate crisis.”

“We also need to do more to stem the steep loss of nature and wildlife that we are witnessing,” Cherry said in an email statement. “And we need to address the inequitable access to the outdoors for historically marginalized communities. President Biden’s conservation goals are inclusive, collaborative, and reflect the recommendation of scientists, who tell us we need to conserve at least 30% of our lands and waters by the year 2030 to safeguard our health, food supplies, and the prosperity of every community.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Castner Range, a former Army artillery training facility in West Texas, is home to archaeological sites and a diversity of rare and at-risk wildlife, but it is off-limits to the public due to unexploded ordnance still on the site.
Castner Range, a former Army artillery training facility in West Texas, is home to archaeological sites and a diversity of rare and at-risk wildlife, but it is off-limits to the public due to unexploded ordnance still on the site.

Brian Wancho via Getty Images

Dan Hartinger, director of government relations at The Wilderness Society, one of the groups that signed the letter, told HuffPost it is a “momentous” time for public lands conservation.

“There’s a growing push from the public and from broad stakeholder organizations recognizing that in the face of the climate crisis and extinction crisis and social inequities, public lands can and should be managed more in line with addressing those crises,” he said.

But there continues to be a concerted effort to take the U.S. backward on conservation and turn federal lands over to private industry, he said.

Lipstick On A Pig

Despite broad bipartisan support for protecting America’s natural heritage, the Republican Party platform calls for transferring control of federal lands to the states. The Trump administration spent four years flirting with the pro-land transfer movement but ultimately steered clear of wholesale transfer and sale, no doubt aware of the potential political ramifications.

Instead, it found other ways of giving fossil fuel and other extractive industries the keys to federal lands, including dismantling dozens of environmental regulations and leading the largest rollback of national monuments in U.S. history. In the end, Trump and his team weakened safeguards for some 35 million federal acres — nearly 1,000 times more than they protected, the Center for American Progress found.

In many ways, Trump’s tenure exposed a shift within the anti-government, pro-transfer movement. Instead of brazen calls for pawning off federal lands, industry-aligned conservatives have sought to streamline project permitting and give states a larger say in how federal lands are managed. Even Ryan Zinke, Trump’s first Interior Department chief who resigned as a delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention over its support for transferring federal lands, voiced support for entering into agreements with states to give them a greater role in public land management.

This shift is on full display in a permitting reform bill that Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and 45 other Republicans co-sponsored earlier this month. Along with codifying the Trump administration’s sweeping overhaul of the National Environmental Policy Act ― one of America’s bedrock environmental laws ― the legislation would give states full control over oil, gas and other energy development on federal lands within their borders. The energy development provision is a carbon copy of language in the so-called Federal Land Freedom Act that Capito and other Republicans introduced last year. As Kate Aronoff, a climate reporter at The New Republic, pointed out, the move would effectively abolish federal land as it currently exists.

Hartinger from the Wilderness Society called the proposal “extreme.”

“Not only does it transfer authority to the states, it’s incredibly broad,” he said. “Everything that’s not a national park or wildlife refuge or congressionally designated wilderness, a state would be allowed to open up for drilling and leasing,” including sites that Congress recently passed legislation to protect.

“It’s still incredibly out there, but is sort of cloaked in something that sounds a little bit more innocuous — until you lift the hood,” Hartinger added.

Monuments and Misinformation

Utah’s lawsuit aimed at blocking Biden’s redesignation of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is the latest in a decadeslong fight over monuments in the Beehive State, which is home to some of the nation’s most fervent public lands opponents.

The two sites, each spanning well over 1 million acres, were controversial when Democratic Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton created them in 2016 and 1996, respectively. But it was Trump who turned them into political footballs.

As HuffPost has reported, the Trump-era monument review and unprecedented rollback were founded on false premises. They posited that early monument designations under the Antiquities Act were small and that recent presidents had abused the law to “lock up” federal lands. Along the way, the Trump administration sidled up to monument opponents and prioritized mining interests over other stakeholders, including the tribes that petitioned for Bears Ears’ creation.

"Moon House" is one of the <a href="https://www.archaeologysouthwest.org/pdf/Bears_Ears_Report.pdf" role="link" class=" js-entry-link cet-external-link" data-vars-item-name="more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites" data-vars-item-type="text" data-vars-unit-name="632dd2f0e4b0db74862a814d" data-vars-unit-type="buzz_body" data-vars-target-content-id="https://www.archaeologysouthwest.org/pdf/Bears_Ears_Report.pdf" data-vars-target-content-type="url" data-vars-type="web_external_link" data-vars-subunit-name="article_body" data-vars-subunit-type="component" data-vars-position-in-subunit="25">more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites</a> in Bears Ears National Monument. The site spans 1.3 million acres in southern Utah.

In challenging Biden’s reversal of Trump’s monument rollbacks, Utah and its Republican delegation took a page out of the Trump playbook. After Biden restored the boundaries of the monument, Utah’s GOP delegation shamelessly portrayed area tribes — the very sovereign tribal nations that fought for Bears Ears — as allies in its fight against the protected sites. And in its lawsuit, the state of Utah claimed the Antiquities Act does not give presidents the authority to designate such large monuments — an argument that flies in the face of decades of legal precedent.

“No court opinion at any level has discovered and enforced limits on the president’s power under the Act,” John Leshy, a professor at U.C. Hastings College of the Law who served as the Interior Department’s top lawyer during the Clinton administration, wrote in a piece last year in the American Bar Association.

The piece eviscerated a written statement by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in March 2021 that all but encouraged future cases challenging the scope of the Antiquities Act.

“It would be astounding,” Leshy continued, “were the courts to ignore the lengthy and unbroken history of judicial deference to presidential actions under the Antiquities Act.”

Yet that’s exactly what the state of Utah is hoping for. The complaint, filed by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, repeatedly invokes Roberts’ memo.

“Presidential abuses of the [Antiquities] Act have become so notable that last year Chief Justice Roberts wrote a separate opinion identifying and condemning them,” the lawsuit reads. “Chief Justice Roberts wrote that expansive presidential reservations would not strike ‘a speaker of ordinary English’ as lawful under the statutory text.”

No other justices signed on to Roberts’ statement last year — a fact that Weiss called “telling.”

The deception and misinformation that have plagued the monument debate are emblematic of a broader trend in political discourse surrounding everything from elections to climate change to conservation initiatives. Take Biden’s goal of conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, known informally as “30×30” and “America the Beautiful.” Before the ink on the executive order could even dry, anti-public land zealots and Republican lawmakers had labeled the plan a government “land grab” and launched an opposition campaign that has been wildly thin on facts and rich in fearmongering and conspiracy theories.

The recent Center for Western Priorities poll found that 75% of Western voters, including 92% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans, approve of Biden’s 30×30 initiative. Today, some 12% of lands and 23% of ocean waters in the U.S. are permanently protected.

The Road Ahead

Public support for safeguarding America’s public assets won’t keep opponents from trying to chip away at them. But it does give the Biden administration a green light to carve out an aggressive conservation legacy that benefits the global climate, wildlife, water resources, human health and much more.

Weiss and Hartinger both hesitated to give Biden a score on public lands at this stage.

“I think the vision is definitely an A+: their embrace of understanding that we need to prioritize conservation and work in communities and be more equitable at how we engage tribes in underserved communities,” Hartinger said. “There are a lot of exciting things that are in motion and we hope to see accomplished soon, but it sort of remains to be seen how quickly the administration can deliver on it.”

Weiss called Biden’s public lands record “incomplete.”

“They’ve done an admirable job reversing the damage of the Trump years,” he said. “Now they need to spend the next two years creating 21st century policies.”

Weiss added that there’s an urgent need for new land protections, be it in the form of monuments, mining bans or land management plans that prioritize conservation and recreation. And he said the Antiquities Act is an essential tool to safeguard threatened and sensitive landscapes when Congress proves unable to act.

That’s precisely the plea that Democrats in Colorado have made in recent weeks. In a letter to Biden last month, Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, Rep. Joe Neguse, and Gov. Jared Polis acknowledged a divided Senate stands in the way of passing the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act and asked the president to step in using his executive powers. Introduced in 2019, the CORE Act combines four previous public lands bills and aims to protect approximately 400,000 acres in the state. The bill passed through the House of Representatives multiple times but stalled in the Senate.

Colorado leaders specifically asked Biden to use the Antiquities Act to create monuments at both Camp Hale and the Tenmile Range, a skiing and hiking mecca near the resort town of Breckenridge, and to ban new mining and drilling activity on a 200,000-acre swath of the White River National Forest.

In his rebuttal to the chief justice’s monument opinion last year, Leshy argued that if Biden and his team are diligent in designating new monuments, courts would uphold those actions.

“The Biden Administration would be foolish to allow the Roberts statement to deter it from making vigorous use of one of the most consequential statutes in the long history of public lands, the Antiquities Act of 1906,” Leshy wrote.



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