If we take care of the land, it will take care of us

Sometimes it takes cataclysmic events to prompt federal action. On Dec. 21, in the wake of California’s devastating fires, President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally MORE signed an executive order calling for active management of our public forests and rangelands.

Wildfires of epic proportion have been consuming the West for the past two decades. Dust storms are increasing, too, doubling in the Southwest over this same period. Just this summer, Forbes magazine reported on a mile-high dust storm in Arizona, likening it to an image from Mars.

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There is no question that we need better land management, but what does this actually entail? It certainly is true that we can and should improve the implementation of certain regulatory policies. For example, inconsistent interpretation and implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) can confound management, drive up costs and invite litigation. This and similar regulatory challenges need to be fixed — and can be without shortcutting environmental protections.

Yet, to lay all the blame on regulation would be to ignore the circumstances that led to the bipartisan adoption of key environmental policies like NEPA in the first place. In fact, it would be to ignore the effects of a changing climate and the impacts of a burgeoning human population. 

If we really want to improve the condition of our public lands, here are five things Congress and the federal administration should do immediately:

1. Learn from history. A shortsighted focus on production that failed to consider environmental consequences has led to many ills we still face today. Whether we are in the business of timber, crops, livestock, energy or recreation, we need to conserve and restore the resources and natural processes that sustain us. As we learned the hard way nearly a century ago, this means taking care, first and foremost, of our soils. This should be the first priority for every public land and natural resource agency. 

2. Provide the resources necessary to execute sound management. Our public lands agencies are critically underfunded. We need boots on the ground to do the planning, management and monitoring that active management entails.  This investment can save billions of taxpayer dollars by helping avoid catastrophes like the Dust Bowl and like the fires that are ravaging the West. 

3. Establish a restoration policy for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees one-tenth of the nation’s entire landmass. After a century of resource utilization, many BLM lands are in need of restoration, yet the agency lacks a coherent restoration strategy and the resources to implement it. 

4. Partner with states, local communities and private landowners. The institutional frameworks within our public land and natural resource agencies need to be reformed to better support community-based collaboration and shared stewardship. 

5. Address climate change. At the intersection of degraded ecosystems and climate change lies a perfect storm. The forest die-offs, drought, water shortages and intensifying storms are not being caused by regulatory policies. They are being caused by a changing climate. Public land agencies can play an important role in mitigating climate change by restoring forest and rangeland health to sequester carbon and water.

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The executive order rightly identifies the condition of our public lands as a national priority. By taking meaningful action now we can hope to avert tragic and costly disasters, increase water supplies, put carbon back in the ground, create jobs, restore agricultural productivity and improve rural economies.

We must take care of the land if we want it to take care of us.

Lesli Allison is the executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance (WLA), a landowner-led network working to advance policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species. WLA members steward approximately 14 million acres of deeded and leased public land in the American West.