Record numbers of people enjoying public lands is a good thing — if we fund them
It has become the new status quo that Congress will be weeks, if not months, late in wrapping up appropriations. This habitual failure to fund our government on time has a real impact on almost every aspect of our lives, from access to health care, education and housing, to national defense and homeland security. Less talked about is the toll these delays take on the health of our public lands, the federal employees who manage them and the economies of the communities that serve as gateways to these critical landscapes.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the largest, most diverse and most scientifically important body of cultural, historical and paleontological resources of any federal land management agency. Among BLM’s most treasured landscapes are the “national conservation lands,” more than 37 million acres of national monuments, national conservation areas and similar designations that are beloved places to recreate, help protect cultural resources and are critical to address the climate and biodiversity crises.
Successive Congresses and administrations should be applauded for expanding the national conservation lands. However, in that same period of time, funding to manage these lands has been cut by 30 percent. This has resulted in significant damage – known and unknown – to valuable and vulnerable lands throughout the West.
Record numbers of people enjoying public lands is a good thing, as long as it’s matched with a corresponding level of land managers and resources to prevent misuse and degradation. The long-standing lack of funding for these resources has had real consequences for the lands and the communities that serve as their gateways.
The Caja del Rio Plateau just southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is one example where the lack of a presence of BLM officers is allowing illegal dumping of trash, poaching, unregulated shooting and the destruction of sacred sites for the area’s surrounding Pueblos. Just recently, the La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs, which contain cultural resources more than 8,000 years old, were vandalized. With increased funding for law enforcement and cultural resource officers, BLM would be better able to prevent these criminal activities.
In Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, increased visitation paired with a lack of federal agency resources has led to human waste issues that are impacting public health, water resources for local residents and wildlife, and the integrity of important cultural sites to Tribal communities.
These are just two of the many examples that illustrate the challenges of managing America’s public lands for the benefit of everyone visiting them today as well as for the coming generations. If we don’t invest in properly managing our public lands now, we will lose the places that tell our history and hold the key to a climate-resilient future.
Last year, more than 100 community-based conservation groups wrote to Congress urging that these problems be resolved through a robust investment in BLM. This investment will help ensure our public lands can be properly managed through the hiring of more land managers, cultural resource officers, law enforcement and other critical staff.
We’re grateful to the U.S. House and Senate appropriators who responded by advancing historic increases for managing national conservation lands. If signed into law, this funding would help increase the inventory, monitoring and protection of cultural resources, enhance proper management of all cultural and ecological resources, as well as provide a quality visitor experience for the millions of Americans who have sought refuge on our public lands through the pandemic.
And, with this funding, our nation will be better able to achieve our climate goals, such as protecting critical habitat and preserving landscapes’ abilities to store carbon.
It’s with this in mind that Congress must pass the final fiscal 2022 appropriations bill, which includes necessary increases in funding for public lands nationwide.
There is no time left to punt on our public lands, the communities who steward and value them, along with the agency that manages them.
David Feinman is government affairs director for Conservation Lands Foundation, which supports a national movement of grassroots advocates to protect, restore and expand the national conservation lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.