Building back better at the Department of Interior

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As a retired major general in the U.S. Army, I know what it takes to assume command of a new unit — putting together your team, taking stock of the most urgent and most critical problems and prioritizing initiatives. 

Any incoming president has a laundry list of challenges to tackle and, certainly in recent history, no more than President-elect Joe Biden. In addition to addressing the long-neglected COVID-19 pandemic and stabilizing our economy, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris must also work to repair the pervasive damage done by the Trump administration at all levels of government, specifically at the Department of the Interior (DOI).  

Taking on these complex challenges will require resilience, patience and intellect. Biden and Harris’s charge won’t only be to undo the Trump administration’s wreckage, but to “build back better” the department and agencies that oversee our nation’s treasured public lands, making them stronger and more safeguarded than ever before. In return, we’ll all benefit. Here are five reasons why:

First, public lands can help address the immediate health crisis and the corollary economic recession impacting our nation. Parks and hiking trails allow for all Americans to improve their physical and mental health (adhering to social distancing guidelines) while local businesses dependent on public lands and waterways can benefit from their expansion and maintenance. 

Second, public lands serve our veterans and military families by offering our men and women of uniform the space to heal and reconnect to themselves, to their loved ones and to the country they swore to protect. Additionally, protecting historic battlefields helps preserve the sacrifice of Americans who have fought and died for our freedoms — reminding us all of the sweat and blood that has built this nation. 

Third, public pools, parks and playgrounds serve our communities, allowing for children to benefit from fresh air, natural environments and care-free play.

Fourth, protecting the sacred lands of Native populations serves these communities as well as demonstrates our patriotic commitments to our nation’s original people. 

Finally, expanding and protecting public lands and waterways helps protect our nation, and our world, against the growing threat of climate change. We watched wildfires destroy swaths of our country in 2020, with each fire season more damaging and deadlier than the previous. Refocusing efforts on proper land management (and not solely economic profits) can mitigate the risk these fires pose and protect the land and communities most vulnerable to their destruction.  

President Trump and the anti-public lands personnel who’ve made up his administration have caused grave damage. Ignoring climate scientists, attempting to zero-out the Land and Water Conservation Fund, rolling back environmental protections and shrinking of national monuments has put our nation and our entire planet at risk.  

The American people have spoken, however, and have chosen Biden and Harris to help right the ship. With their guidance, we can overcome the damage of the last four years and set out on a new course for a better and stronger DOI.

The Biden administration won’t be alone in this fight. Support for public lands and waterways is popular, as the overwhelmingly bipartisan passage of the Great American Outdoors Act just showed. Republicans and Democrats alike understand the critical and urgent need to protect our public lands. And veterans, a group with a proud history of environmental stewardship, are ready to get to work and carry on the traditions of environmental champions like fellow veteran Teddy Roosevelt.

With a new leader at the helm, I look forward to staying in the fight and lending my voice to the noble work of realizing a DOI that serves all Americans and protects the lands and waterways that serve us all. 

Major General (Ret.) Paul D. Eaton served more than 30 years in the U.S. Army and is now a senior advisor to the Vet Voice Foundation, which mobilizes veterans to become leaders in our nation’s democracy through participation in the civic process. Follow him on Twitter @PaulDEaton52.

Tags biden administration Biden-Harris Climate change Department of Interior Donald Trump environmental protections Joe Biden Land and Water Conservation Fund Land management Mental health physical health public lands rule rollbacks The Great outdoors Act Trump administration Veterans

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