Around 27 percent of the country is federally owned land, according to Will Harlan, a writer for Blue Ridge Outdoors. That includes land that is managed by four federal agencies: the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and U.S. Forest Service. “No country on Earth has this much property that belongs to the people,” writes Harlan.
What happens with that public land has a lot to do with who occupies the public land at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Center for American Progress (CAP), which dubbed Donald Trump “The most anti-nature President in U.S. history,” calculated that over the course of three years, the Trump administration “attempted to remove protections from nearly 35 million acres of public lands—approximately 1,000 times more land than his administration has protected.”
The National Parks Conservation Association documented in detail Trump’s actions in an article titled “The Undoing of our Public Lands and National Parks.”
“President Trump and the officials he appointed systematically undermined, degraded and outright attacked the laws that protect our public lands, the agencies that manage them and the irreplaceable resources these places safeguard for the American people,” it said.
At the end of Trump’s term, the New York Times listed nearly 100 “environmental rules officially reversed, revoked, or otherwise rolled back under Mr. Trump.” These include reversing an Obama-era rule limiting methane gas emissions on federal lands, withdrawing an Obama-era order to consider climate change in the management of natural resources in national parks, opening nine million acres of Western land to oil and gas drilling by weakening habitat protections for an imperiled bird, lifting an Obama-era freeze on new coal leases on public lands, rescinding water pollution regulations for fracking on federal and Indian lands, and easing the approval process for oil and gas drilling in national forests by curbing the power of the Forest Service to review and approve leases.
The Biden administration has reversed a great number of Trump era environmental policies, a process that began during President Biden’s first week in office. It still has more to go.
Two significant changes were made last spring in the form proposals governing some federal lands.
Following an Earth Day 2022 Executive Order “ to conserve and restore old and mature forests,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a proposal to amend all 128 forest land management plans to conserve and steward old-growth forest conditions on national forests and grasslands nationwide.
And a new rule proposed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) “would advance the BLM’s mission to manage the public lands for multiple use and sustained yield by prioritizing the health and resilience of ecosystems across those lands.” The proposal goes onto say the agency would “make wise management decisions based on science and data,” perhaps drawing another distinction from the predecessor administration’s approach.
While it doesn’t erase the use of public lands for extractive purposes, the new rule, according to its official summary, “puts conservation on an equal footing with other uses.”
The Center for American Progress applauded the action. “Among other things, the rule would give the BLM commonsense direction to manage for the long-term health of public lands, conserve and restore lands with the highest ecological value, incorporate Indigenous knowledge and consult with Tribes in public land management, and consider Tribally and community-led proposals to protect special places,” wrote Drew McConville and Sam Zeno in a report from September.
We should be hearing about these two important rules in the coming months. But they signal the direction of the Biden administration toward greater protection of public lands and away from the public lands giveaway on which the previous administration seemed bent on.