WASHINGTON – In January, just a week after he became president, Joe Biden set an ambitious goal of conserving 30% of the nation’s land and waters by 2030, and in May his administration outlined a set of principles guiding that “30 by 30” initiative.
On Tuesday, early on in a week that would see Biden make a major move toward that goal, a group of GOP lawmakers representing Western states in Congress unveiled a conservation vision of their own.
In their “Western Conservation Principles,” the Western Caucuses – led by Rep. Dan Newhouse of Central Washington in the House and Sen. Steve Daines of Montana in the Senate – outline an approach defined by actively managing and using it for activities like grazing, mining and harvesting timber.
In a joint statement, Newhouse and Daines called that approach “real conservation,” contrasting it with a “preservationist” approach of “locking up” public lands to keep them untouched.
That difference in philosophy was put into stark relief Friday, when Biden signed an executive order restoring two national monuments in Utah that former President Donald Trump downsized dramatically during his first year in office.
Trump’s move opened up 85% of Bears Ears National Monument – established by former President Barack Obama in his final days in office – to mining and oil drilling. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created by former President Bill Clinton two decades earlier, shrunk by nearly half.
Biden’s order also restored the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of Massachusetts, which Obama established in 2016 and Trump reopened to commercial fishing in June 2020. National monument status prohibits new development, although existing oil and gas leases, mining claims, livestock grazing and access to private property can continue.
Newhouse, who was in Utah for a trip with other Western Caucus members, called Biden’s move “ridiculous” in a statement Friday.
“Locking up millions of acres of land under this preservationist designation while ignoring the benefits of locally-led land management will only create a deeper divide within the state and will jeopardize the landscapes, natural resources, and recreation access that Utahns and visitors enjoy,” he said.
The Congressional Western Caucus, which bills itself as “a voice for rural America,” is defined less by a region than a philosophy based on free-market economics, private property rights and local control of land. Its members include House Republicans from as far east as Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico, as well as Northwest lawmakers like Newhouse and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane.
The Senate Western Caucus includes GOP Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Mitt Romney of Utah, among others.
During his campaign, Biden pledged to restore the two monuments in Utah, and tribes and conservation groups had grown frustrated that the president hadn’t acted sooner. A coalition of tribes – the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni – sent a letter late last month asking Biden to protect sacred sites that had been vandalized since Trump reduced Bears Ears National Monument.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has been a vocal proponent of restoring the two Utah monuments, and Biden thanked her in a speech Friday for her “really hard, consistent, unrelenting work” on the issue. In her own statement, Cantwell cheered the move as “a well-deserved victory” for tribes and the communities that benefit from the outdoor recreation industry.
“Some of America’s most iconic landscapes are safe again,” Cantwell said. “I commend President Biden for rescuing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante from the threat of mining and fossil fuel development.”
In a May report titled “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Commerce laid out a set of broad principles for Biden’s conservation approach but offered few specifics.
Those principles include “a collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation,” giving all people equitable access to public lands and respecting tribal sovereignty. It also promises to create jobs and support conservation efforts on private property.
About 12% of land and a quarter of U.S. waters are currently under permanently protected status, and to meet its 30% goal, the Biden administration’s plan appears to rely on a broader definition of “conservation” that includes farmland and ranchland. It also calls for a “voluntary and locally led” approach to conservation, but its ambiguity left conservatives anxious.
“It’s this lack of information surrounding the 30 by 30 initiative that’s left many Westerners very concerned that this was just a way to lock up more land,” Daines said in a video announcing the Western Conservation Principle.
In a document laying out their own principles, the Republicans propose an approach based on the idea that “it is action – rather than inaction and ‘protection’ status – that will achieve conservation outcomes.”
As an example of that need for action, the Western Caucus members cite the 63 million acres of the National Forest system and 54 million acres of Department of the Interior lands that are at high or very high hazard for wildfire, according to the U.S. Forest Service. More active forest management, they argue, could lead to healthier forests that are less susceptible to catastrophic wildfires.
The GOP group also calls for streamlining environmental review processes, more actively controlling invasive species, and the federal government giving more authority to states to manage public lands. It decries a “D.C. knows best” mentality and posits that “Those who are closest to the land – whose quality and way of life depend upon healthy ecosystems – care most about the land and know best how to maintain its legacy, conservation, and uses for years to come.”
The two approaches have garnered support from predictable sources – with agriculture and mining groups backing the GOP plan and the Democrats’ plan supported by tribes and environmentalists – but a few groups made at least lukewarm statements about both approaches, suggesting the fight over conservation is not a zero-sum game.
“The commonsense approach outlined in the Western Conservation Principles reflects the commitment to stewardship and respect for natural resources which generations of farmers and ranchers have displayed,” Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said of the GOP plan. Duvall earlier said his group appreciates that the Biden administration’s report “recognizes the oversized contributions of farmers and ranchers to conservation while feeding the world.”
Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, called Biden’s plan “historic and inspiring” but said in another statement the GOP plan shows that “conservation can bring us all together.”
“We appreciate Senator Daines’ and Representative Newhouse’s leadership in supporting collaborative conservation and, while we may not agree on every strategy, we look forward to working together with the Western Caucus to achieve this important conservation goal,” O’Mara said in a statement.
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