An era of public lands cuts, capped by outdoors act

During the battle for the Republican nomination in 2016, President Trump aimed to sway Western voters by praising the nation’s “beautiful” sprawling federal estate, while criticizing its lands managers as “draconian.”

Following his election that same year, Trump vowed to honor the legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt in part by protecting public lands for hunters, anglers and other recreational users (E&E Daily, Dec. 7, 2016).

As he prepares to exit the White House tomorrow, observers suggest Trump’s legacy on public lands reflects his campaign rhetoric — rolling back environmental regulations, focusing on “energy dominance” — more than his onetime pledge to emulate the “conservationist president” (Energywire, Jan. 19).

“It’s hard to quantify the Trump administration’s legacy on public lands because they spent four years laser-focused on opening the floodgates for oil and gas, while gutting environmental protections,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, the National Wildlife Federation’s associate vice president for public lands.

She added: “The incoming administration should take a pause and figure out what the right management approach and tools should be for the 21st century, as we face a climate crisis, growing demands for recreation on our public lands and scientists warning us about plummeting wildlife numbers.”

But even Trump’s critics acknowledge his record will include one major win for public lands: permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Despite proposing a budget that would have gutted the popular lands program, Trump pulled an about-face in early 2020 and demanded that Congress approve permanent funding, as well as address the maintenance backlog in the National Park Service and elsewhere (E&E Daily, March 4, 2020).

A mere five months later, he signed the Great American Outdoors Act into law.

“Only one president has got it done. And that is you,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said at the signing ceremony, handing credit to the president (Greenwire, Aug. 4, 2020).

But John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, told E&E News that it is the measure’s sponsors, Montana Sen. Steve Daines (R) and former Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner (R), who deserve the credit for the measure. They are the “legitimate champions of LWCF,” he said, while noting there were also political imperatives in passage of the law not long before the fall election.

“It was very politically motivated,” Gale said, noting that both Daines and Gardner faced competitive reelection challenges last year. Gardner lost his bid in Colorado to now Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper.

“We saw that change the tune, and we had a lot of great support from the administration to get it over the finish line,” Gale acknowledged. “I’ll definitely give the Trump administration credit for making this important legislation happen, but it was not motived by any altruistic concern for land and water conservation.”

Conservation advocates, including Gale and Center for Western Priorities Deputy Director Aaron Weiss, also asserted that Trump’s support for LWCF funding deserves another asterisk. They emphasized Bernhardt’s order in November restricting how those funds can be spent and granting state and local governments veto power over new land purchases.

“Trump and Bernhardt still tried to gut LWCF at every opportunity, even via executive action on their way out the door,” Weiss said. “The good news is that GAOA is the law now and the Biden administration will get to implement it as written, not as Bernhardt wished it was written.”

Daines likewise called on Interior to reform its new restrictions in November, slamming the agency for failing to use “transparency, collaboration, and partnerships that have made this critical conservation program so successful for decades” (E&E Daily, Nov. 16, 2020).

Gale summarized the juxtaposition of ensuring the program’s permanent funding while attempting to rein in its impacts.

“It’s like the administration can’t help but stepping on their own feet after they do something good,” he said.

Unwinding cuts

The Biden administration is expected to unwind a host of other Trump-era public lands efforts — including massive reductions to two national monuments in southern Utah.

The new chief executive is expected to quickly reinstate the boundaries of both Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which Trump shrank by more than 2 million acres in late 2017.

It remains to be seen how President-elect Joe Biden will pursue those changes, but the quickest path includes issuing a new presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows presidents to set aside federal land to protect areas of cultural, historical or scientific interest (Greenwire, Nov. 3, 2020).

Environmentalists are also urging the Biden administration to mitigate damage caused by the Trump administration’s work to expand or replace hundreds of miles of border wall along the nation’s 2,000-mile boundary with Mexico.

“Walls and border militarization are harmful to local communities and Indigenous tribes who have watched in horror as mountainsides are needlessly dynamited, graves and religious sites bulldozed, and our most beloved landscapes ripped apart,” said Dan Millis, director of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands program.

Biden’s transition team has already vowed to take significant actions to reverse many of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Media outlets have reported the new administration plans to create a task force to reunify families separated under Trump administration policies, as well as to halt construction on the border barrier project.

Millis said he wants to see the Biden administration reverse land withdrawals — in which the Bureau of Land Management turned over control of more than 600 acres of public lands along the border to the Department of the Army (E&E Daily, July 22, 2020).

“Just like Trump’s inhumane family separation policy, the border wall does irreparable harm,” Millis said. “In the case of the wall, by separating the landscape, threatening the natural flows of water and wildlife, and polluting our starry night skies with the wall’s built-in flood lights.”