Interior Department is cutting the public out of public lands planning

Interior Department is cutting the public out of public lands planning
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Having served at the Department of the Interior for nearly a decade, I know what it looks like to have our public lands and their values front of mind. But the department’s current leadership is cutting the public out of public lands planning, and effectively dismantling the agency responsible for protecting our nation’s most important landscapes.

These lands are a core part of America’s heritage, and the administration seems hellbent on destroying them. This fast-and-furious assault on tens of millions of acres of national monuments, cultural sites and other iconic lands ignores the department’s mandate to conserve certain lands as well as the will of the people.

It’s essential that Americans act now, and let the administration know we won’t accept our public lands being handed over to oil and gas companies. Whether you’re a hiker or a hunter, biker or business owner, Democrat or Republican — our public lands belong to you. We must defend our common heritage together and protect the wild places we love.

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Over the next 16 months, Americans will see more than 42 million acres of their most important public lands under review and at risk to oil and mineral development. These landscapes are important economic engines for rural economies across the West, and millions of Americans visit them every year. Every decision made about how they’re managed will impact communities that rely on them for recreation, tourism, and healthy air and water.

The Bureau of Land Management has a mandate to protect these places for multiple uses. This includes conserving areas important for protecting America’s natural heritage, wildlife, indigenous cultures, and a thriving recreation community that fuels local economies. These National Conservation Lands comprise less than 15 percent of the roughly 250 million acres BLM manages, and until two years ago were managed with a conservation priority for decades by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

This administration’s recent decisions aren’t partisan — they’re a blatant strategy to ignore bipartisan support for public lands and hand them over to their oil and gas industry friends. 

The department’s decision to move its headquarters to Colorado and the appointment of William Perry Pendley as acting director are overt actions to achieve this. Pendley is an anti-public lands zealot who for decades advocated for the sale of federal lands. Moving the agency headquarters is also a deliberate move to shift the agency further away from congressional oversight and put decision making in the hands of a few political appointees who want to sell federal lands.

This strategy has been consistent since early in Trump’s tenure, when the administration put more than two dozen national monuments under “review” and illegally used the Antiquities Act to significantly reduce the size of two of them. 

In the past four months alone, BLM has done a bait-and-switch on six management plans covering 22 million acres in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Oregon. The plans this administration is going forward with are significantly different than the drafts that local BLM officials and community members had collaborated on to reach consensus and figure out what made sense for their community. These draft plans were gutted without regard to local input and concerns and eliminated protections in place for decades.

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Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah is a good example of what’s at stake with these plans. The administration is attempting to remove protections from half the monument — nearly 1 million acres — undermining standards for national monument protections and ignoring public opposition and ongoing litigation.

I had the benefit of visiting this awe-inspiring landscape and was struck by the deep solitude I felt as I wandered among the soaring arches and sculpted slot canyons. The remoteness and wildness are what make these protected lands so vital as wilderness habitats and recreational destinations. Along with the monument’s treasure trove of historical artifacts and scientific and paleontological significance, are the reasons why Grand Staircase-Escalante has been protected from destruction for nearly 25 years. Now that’s being unraveled.  

In the coming weeks and months, the BLM is slated to release more plans just like this that would affect an additional 20 million acres of the American West. There’s no reason for us to think these will be any less destructive, or that they won’t represent a heartbreaking disregard for our natural wonders (and public opinion). These decisions fail to honor the cultural, historic and scientific values of our nation’s wild places. We must no longer stand by and watch as this destruction continues. 

Americans must call for accountability from the BLM, the agency responsible for stewarding some of America’s most spectacular public lands. The Department of the Interior has ignored millions of voices for far too long, and at every step of the way. Now, our only choice is to get louder. 

Anne Shields was chief of staff for former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and sits on the board of directors for the Conservation Lands Foundation.