A Biden Administration To-Do List on Land Conservation
Challenging times call for a new way of looking at the management of our public lands. The moment is ripe for a bold conservation ethic.
The Bureau of Land Management is the largest federal land manager in the country, stewarding one in every 10 acres. Managed responsibly and with conservation and resilience in mind, our public lands can help us address two of the biggest challenges we face today—climate change and biodiversity loss. But the agency and the lands it manages are regularly overlooked when policymakers discuss solutions to these two crises. This has to change, and the time is now. We must enlist the agency as a key partner in fighting these inseparable challenges and these lands must be managed for today’s rapidly changing world.
The Bureau of Land Management’s stated “multiple use” mission “is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” What this means on the ground is that it must balance a wide array of uses on its lands, from mining and energy development to recreation and species and habitat protection. In 1972, Congress expressly included a conservation mandate when it passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to further guide the agency’s mission. This law affords the agency broad discretion to adapt to new challenges and opportunities. There is no greater challenge to land managers than the domino effect of species loss, habitat destruction, more persistent and severe droughts, and fire seasons that stretch longer and longer each year. Conserving more of our public lands is going to be a critical part of adapting to the new realities we face. But to date, the agency has not fully realized the conservation piece of its “multiple use” mandate.
Recent polling shows that communities in the West want to protect the water, open space, wildlife, and access to nature that make our country unique. With 90 percent of the agency’s lands open to oil and gas leasing, communities are calling for greater emphasis on conservation—providing places to hike and fish and supporting habitat for species, from bighorn sheep to desert tortoise. With rapid nature loss and climate impacts upon us, it’s time the Bureau of Land Management listens to the people who love our wide open spaces and brings balance to its management of these diverse and magnificent lands.
There are four immediate steps the Biden administration can take to elevate conservation and bring the multiple uses of public lands into the balance we need for the 21st century:
Strengthen the Bureau of Land Management’s landscape conservation tools
The agency has valuable conservation tools at its disposal right now that can help it deliver the full breadth of its mission. It could get a lot more bang for its buck, for example, by making wider use of its ability to designate Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs), which can be used to protect resources, from ancient volcanic craters to rare plants found nowhere else on earth. In addition, since 2003, the agency has made no progress in protecting the more than 29 million acres in the Lower 48 states that qualify as wilderness but live in an administrative limbo. These millions of acres of “lands with wilderness characteristics” could be protected by simply invoking FLPMA’s Section 202 authority that allows the agency to establish new Wilderness Study Areas, which come with strong protections.
Improve tribal consultation and engagement
For far too long, federal agencies have not lived up to their tribal consultation obligations. The agency must create meaningful opportunities for tribal engagement throughout its land use planning processes and rulemakings. The agency must adopt new approaches for comanagement of ancestral lands and waters, looking to Indigenous nations and communities for new models.
Water in the West is precious. Much of the land that the agency manages is in semiarid landscapes, where riparian-wetland and aquatic areas occupy a small portion of the broader landscape (1–2 percent) but support around 80 percent of the area’s biodiversity. In addition to providing habitat, riverscapes provide clean drinking water; reduce the effects of wildfires, floods, and drought; and are key to the vitality of local economies and communities. By kick-starting natural processes, the agency can restore degraded stream channels that look and function like dried-out sponges into thriving, healthy riverscapes. Restoration strategies can be as simple as using wood and other natural materials to widen stream channels and begin the process of moving water back into a connected, resilient floodplain.
Invest in connectivity
As the world faces staggering nature loss and disappearance of biodiversity, protected public lands can be the vital “connective tissue” across the western United States, providing critical corridors for wildlife between big wilderness areas and national parks and refuges as well as smaller private, state, and county lands. Because the agency’s lands are vast and widely dispersed, the agency is essential to sustaining a network of connected lands and waters across the West.
The Bureau of Land Management has managed its “lands of many uses” to the detriment of conservation for too long. The time is ripe for the agency to strengthen its commitment to conservation and bring these many uses into real and meaningful balance. The climate and nature crises demand it.