As of right now the election isn’t officially over — technically not until December 14th — but while the current president is refusing to concede to the president-elect, just about every reliable information source has called the election for Joe Biden. This might have you celebrating or worrying, depending on how you feel about the issues. Regardless of your political affiliation, the outcome of this year’s election will have plenty of effects on us here in the US. And while many of these effects are of great importance, I’m not equipped to discuss every aspect of the Biden/Harris plan for the next four years. And frankly, that’s not what I do here anyway. I do discuss public lands, however, so when it comes to our new president-elect, I think it’s worth taking a look at Joe Biden and public lands.
I love public lands. I place a high value on them, and as such a candidate’s position on public lands, conservation, and environmental regulation goes a long way when it comes to deciding how I cast a vote. So let’s talk about president-elect Biden and public lands.
But I don’t like Joe Biden!
I’m not asking you to become best friends with the man. Or Kamala Harris. Nor am I asking you to never critique his administration and its policies. I am asking you to take a look at the potential positives for our public lands that could come from a Biden presidency. Maybe you still won’t like him, or still disagree with a number of the administration’s policies. That’s okay, I’m not on the government’s payroll.
What I’m asking you to do is to take a look at the state of our public lands, try to understand their value, and consider whether Biden’s presidency will have a positive effect on our public lands.
A brief introduction to public lands management
Traditionally, public lands have been a largely bipartisan issue. A good number of conservative leaning voters tend to hunt and fish on public lands, and as such want to see them protected. Likewise, many liberal leaning voters like to protect our public lands in order to ensure that forests and parks exist for generations to come. A significant population across the political spectrum enjoys camping, hiking, and backpacking on our public lands.
There has always been room for everyone when it comes to America’s public lands (even if historically, we haven’t had fair and equal access for all). We have almost six hundred and fifty acres owned by us — the American people — which the government manages on our behalf. When you dig down into how and why it’s managed, you’ll run into the phrase, “multiple use.” It’s exactly what it sounds like. Our public lands serve a multitude of purposes, and must be managed to balance those uses.
For example, we extract resources from public lands. That’s neither inherently good or evil. We also graze cattle on public lands, and that’s not inherently good or evil either. As such, public lands support the oil and gas industries, as well as the beef industry. But that’s not the only uses. Our public lands support biodiversity in plant and animal communities, supply clean air and water, and provide wild places where we can hike, backpack, hunt, fish, climb, ride, seek solitude, and explore. The whole idea is that all of these uses have a place on our public lands, and proper management finds the balance between them.
American Presidents and public lands
If we look back over the past 40 years, we see a long string of presidents supporting and protecting public lands, albeit each for different reasons. When Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act into law in 1980, “he set aside over 104 million acres of land, creating 10 national parks and preserves, two national monuments, nine national wildlife refuges, two national conservation areas and 25 wild and scenic rivers ensuring that large portions of wilderness remain undeveloped.” Ronald Reagan saw the importance of conservation, signing “more federal wilderness bills into law than any other president since the Wilderness Act was enacted in 1964 — 43 bills that designated more than 10 million acres of wilderness areas in 27 states.”
George H.W. Bush established three marine monuments, equaling 125 million acres, protecting marine habitat and American history, and signed legislation that added almost 2.5 million acres of wilderness. His son, George W. Bush designated over 218 million acres of land as National Monuments, and Bill Clinton designated 5.7 million more. Barrack Obama “protected more lands, waters and cultural sites than any other president,” to the tune of 548 million acres of land and sea.
None of this is to say that any of these presidents were perfect, or were perfect for public lands. They weren’t. But this track record shows a 40 year continuity of preservation and conservation in some manner. If you bristle at the number of acres set aside, remember that the federal government doesn’t own that land — we do. Further, don’t forget that this land doesn’t simply sit there and do nothing. It creates income, either directly or indirectly, on the local, state, and federal level.
President Trump’s Relationship with Public Lands
During his term as president, Trump has faced the lion’s share of criticism in regards to the administration’s treatment of public lands. Back in May, the Center for American Progress calculated that “the Trump administration has attempted to remove protections from nearly 35 million acres of public lands—approximately 1,000 times more land than his administration has protected.”
Further, the CAP found that, “the Trump administration’s repeal of protections for public lands spans 12 states, but Alaska has been ground zero in its push to expand logging, mining, and drilling in sensitive areas. In what can only be described as a liquidation of public lands in Alaska, the Trump administration has put at risk vast swaths of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) and the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The administration is also in the process of stripping protections from 9.2 million acres of old-growth forest in the Tongass National Forest. Within the past year, the U.S. Department of the Interior has revoked Public Land Orders that open 1.5 million acres to mining and has indicated that it is considering similar measures for an additional 50 million acres in the state.”
Even if you support President Trump for other reasons, I think that it’s easy to see why these actions are short-sighted. They don’t, in my opinion, fully take into consideration the long term effects or negative environmental consequences that these decisions will have for both public lands and the people that they affect.
On the other hand, President Trump signed two incredibly important pieces of public lands legislation, the Dingell Act and the Great American Outdoors Act. If you’d like to know more about what these acts mean for public lands, you can follow those links to read what I’ve written about them individually. For the purposes of this post, I’ll just say that these acts created incredible potential to improve and expand public lands. Critics argue that Trump merely signed the acts into law, bearing no responsibility for the difficult work navigating the partisan congress to create these acts — which is true — and that he did so because they were easy wins — which they were. Especially when it comes to the GAOA, it’s possible that he signed to hang his hat on bipartisan legislation prior to the election.
But whether he signed them into law because he simply wanted to appear to care about conservation and public lands, and despite the fact that Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado deserves much of the credit for the GAOA, I’ll certainly express my gratitude for President Trump’s willingness to pass these laws. Because both pieces of legislation are a big deal.
But that isn’t the whole story either. One of the significant victories of the GAOA was that a list of proposed projects, such as the one created back in April to support passing the legislation, would be funded in fiscal year 2021. But the deadline for the Department of Interior to turn in the official list came and went on November 2nd. The DOI argues that the president himself is responsible for delivering the list to congress, however, “DOI is a part of the executive branch, and the lawmakers who wrote the GAOA understand this list to be the responsibility of that department.” Ultimately, this means that much of the work that could be accomplished in 2021 to protect and improve National Parks and other public lands is up in the air. It begs the question, did the Trump administration have any real plans of effectively using the GAOA to its intended purpose or simply to influence the election? I can’t speak to that, but as someone who celebrated the passing of both laws, I am disappointed that the promised forward progress seems to have stopped in its tracks.
Will Biden do better?
For an article speculating about president-elect Joe Biden and public lands. I haven’t mentioned him much yet.
Let’s rectify that now.
We can’t really know how he’ll do until he’s in office, but to assess the likelihood that the Biden administration will be good for public lands, I’ll take a look at the information that we do have — his campaign promises and his track record.
We all know from experience that campaign promises don’t equal legislation, for a number of reasons. But it’s a decent place to start.
The Biden/Harris campaign set ambitious goals for reducing fossil fuel extraction development on public lands, to reverse President Trump’s downsizing of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, and to increase the amount of protected land from 13% to 30% by 2030. Likewise, Biden has promised to reverse the current administration’s weakening of environmental regulations, as well as to shift the energy development on public lands to promote solar and wind power, gradually moving away from fossil fuel development.
Critics on the left suggest this doesn’t go far enough, while critics on the right think it goes too far. But the fact of the matter is that the rest of the world is moving forward on clean energy, and we should as well. On that note, Biden has also stated that after inauguration he will immediately recommit to the Paris Agreement, and take steps to see America working to combat climate change.
But I don’t believe in climate change!
Well. Okay. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that man-made climate change is real, poses a real threat, and that if we don’t take drastic steps in the near future, we’re going to see a whole lot of serious trouble. This isn’t some dark liberal agenda here — science doesn’t have a political bias.
Still don’t believe in climate change? Seriously, click this link and see just how much consensus there is.
If you still think climate change isn’t real, and the overwhelming evidence that suggests that it is doesn’t convince you, I’m probably not going to have much luck changing your mind either.
So let’s look at it another way — jobs. As we transition to clean energy, you don’t have to worry about overall job loss. Because jobs in fossil fuel have been on a downward trajectory since the 80s. Meanwhile, the clean energy job sector is growing, and will likely experience a bloom of rapid growth in the next decade. Much of the infrastructure jobs, like power plant operators and electricians, won’t go away during the transition.
Further, “the energy technologies of the future create more well-paying jobs per energy dollar spent, and will continue to do so even as the new technologies mature. Not only is renewable electricity already cost-competitive with fossil-generated power in many locations, it provides 50 percent more jobs, at similar pay, for the same amount of energy.”
None of this means that we’re getting rid of oil and coal immediately. Those who work extracting fossil fuels won’t lose their jobs overnight. Instead, see it as a transition where we’ll put greater emphasis on some things that we’re already doing, and a de-emphasis on things that are already starting to fade away. As we do so we can make retraining and educational resources available to those who work in fossil fuel extraction, like we already do with dislocated coal miners via the POWER Grants.
So even if you don’t believe in climate change, or believe that climate change isn’t man-made, the benefits of clean energy are still absolutely clear. In the long run, it’s good for jobs and our economy.
And our planet, including our public lands.
Vice President Biden’s long environmental voting record
As a Senator, Joe’s voting record is public, so we can review it. Luckily, the League of Conservation Voters makes scorecards so that we don’t have to dig into the voting history ourselves. The scorecard gives a percentage “grade” for each individual. President-elect Biden’s is pretty good, coming in at a lifetime score of 83% on votes that involve air, clean energy, climate change, dirty energy, drilling, lands/forests, oceans, toxics/public right to know, transportation, water, wildlife, and other environmental concerns. This means that over his entire voting record, 83% of his votes have been positive in regards to environmental and conservation concerns, and 17% have not. That’s not perfect, but I’m happy with it.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has an even better score, at 91%. To be fair, her voting record only goes back to 2017, and Biden’s goes back to 1973. That’s a significant track record of voting in favor of our environment, so when it comes to Biden and public lands, the track record looks good, which leads me to believe his presidency will follow suit.
Since 1973? That’s way too long!
So you’re in favor of term limits for senators and congressmen. Fair enough. But as of right now, they don’t exist, and his constituency continued to re-elect him. As far as the discussion of whether his presidency will be good for public lands, his length of service gives us an idea of how he’ll approach conservation, protecting the environment, and providing for successful and balanced management of public lands.
I still don’t like Joe Biden
Remember, I’m not asking you to take him out for beers. I’m not even asking you to support all of his policies — though I do urge you to give him a chance.
What I’m asking you to do is to give Biden and Harris the opportunity to show us what they can do for our environment and our public lands. Even if you’ve never set foot in a National Park, National Forest, Wilderness Area, or on BLM land, you benefit from their existence. From grazing and resource extraction, to timber harvesting and wildlife management, we reap the benefits of public lands as a society. Those of us who play on public lands — whether we’re backpacking, camping, hiking, biking, climbing, fishing, hunting, or climbing — reap an even greater benefit.
If you value any of those places, activities, and resources — and as an American, I think you should — the Biden administration’s approach to conservation and public lands will likely give you something to approve of, even if you don’t like his other policies.
Will Joe Biden be a good president for public lands?
Only time will truly tell, but judging from his voting record, stance on climate change, campaign promises, and track record as Vice President of the Obama administration, I’m betting yes.
Our public lands have a rich history of bipartisan support, even as recently as this year as the GAOA passed both the House and Senate, and was then signed into law by President Trump. Our public lands are unique and fundamentally American, and whether you’re a liberal, a conservative, or something else altogether, they’re worth supporting.
So if you love our public lands, whether that’s playing in National Parks, hunting on BLM land, or backpacking in Wilderness area, I hope you’ll give the new administration a chance to prove its worth. At least when it comes to Biden and public lands.