Could Biden’s conservation plan boost neglected BLM lands?

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The Biden administration’s conservation focus could end up giving a crucial boost to a Bureau of Land Management program that over the years has failed to attract congressional support.

Conservationists and others have denounced what they see as the chronic underfunding of BLM’s national conservation lands, which comprise 35 million acres of some of the most pristine, culturally diverse and scientifically important managed by the federal government. That has remained true under the Biden administration, they say, despite administration requests to strengthen the program.

Congress allocated $49 million for the program in the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2022. President Joe Biden signed the law into law in March, which is $18 million less than requested.

Some supporters fear that little will change when congressional officials begin drafting funding bills for fiscal year 2023 this summer.

But the Biden administration won’t be able to meet the conservation goals of the “America the Beautiful” initiative – which aims to preserve 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030 – without plots be added to the National Conservation Lands system, observers say. say.

“The National Conservation Lands is a large system that is on the verge of growing, and that means it needs to be properly funded if we are to meet the initiatives set out in the America the Beautiful initiative,” said Phil Hanceford, a senior attorney at the firm. Wilderness Society.

BLM said so in a statement emailed to E&E News. The additional funding Biden requested in his fiscal year 2023 budget request — which requests $68 million for the program — is needed to “enable increased capacity to manage conservation lands and advance the Americas Initiative.” the Beautiful,” BLM said.

The Wilderness Society and dozens of other conservation groups signed a letter sent to the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee in March, recommending that Congress allocate a record $78 million dollars to the program in fiscal year 2023.

“Such an increase would reflect a correction for the historic underfunding” of the program, and underscore “the important role that national conservation lands will play in meeting President Biden’s 30 by 30 conservation goals,” the letter said.

There is evidence that some members of Congress are also trying to build support, such as Sen. Martin Heinrich (DN.M.), one of the program’s most vocal proponents.

“Senator Heinrich is a strong supporter” of the system and “requested increased funding in the appropriations process last year, and will do so again this year,” his office said in a statement emailed to E&E News.

And last month, Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette (D) asked 25 other House members — all Democrats — to sign a letter she sent to the Interior and Interior Appropriations subcommittee. environment, also encouraging them to allocate $78 million to the fiscal year 2023 budget.

The additional funding is needed, the letter says, “so that BLM can properly manage these critically important locations.”

The $49 million Congress appropriated in the fiscal year 2022 budget is “nowhere near enough” for BLM to do so, said David Feinman, director of government affairs for the Conservation Lands Foundation, which advocates for national conservation lands office.

The group organized the letter-writing campaign in March to Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who chairs the subcommittee, and Rep. David Joyce of Ohio, its top-ranking Republican.

“BLM can’t do the job it needs to do and it can’t hire the staff it needs to do it. When you don’t have the people and you don’t have the resources to do the job of running these sites, that job doesn’t get done,” Feinman said.

BLM’s National Conservation Lands include 28 national monuments, including the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears monuments that former President Donald Trump significantly reduced. Biden last year reversed that decision.

The system’s 901 individual units also include 17 National Conservation Areas, more than 260 congressional-delegated wilderness areas, 2,700 miles of National Wild and Scenic Rivers, and nearly 6,000 miles of National Trails. In total, they make up nearly 10% of BLM’s total land holdings, but about 25% of total annual visitors to agency-managed sites.

The system includes sites renowned for their natural beauty, such as the oak groves, wildflower meadows and steep canyons that make up the 112,928-acre Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon, as well as the Dominguez National Conservation Area -210,149-acre escalante in west-central Colorado that features petroglyphs, waterfalls and red sandstone canyons.

It also includes places of environmental and economic significance, such as the 485,300-acre Morley Nelson Snake River National Birds of Prey Conservation Area in Idaho, home to the largest concentration of nesting raptors in North America. North, and the 196,877-acre Red Rock Canyon National. Conservation Area west of Las Vegas, which attracts over one million visitors annually, generating economic benefits for surrounding communities.

“It’s some of the most beautiful land we have,” said Hanceford of the Wilderness Society.

But a number of sites designated years ago – including the 242,000-acre Río Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico and the 1.6 million-acre Mojave Trails National Monument in California – have not no land use management plans yet, Hanceford mentioned.

Biden’s budget request for fiscal year 2023 specifically singles out the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante landmarks and the two proclamations he signed last year by restoring them to their original size. He also noted that more funding for the program “will strengthen the management and operational capacity of these special units.”

Jim Kenna, a Conservation Lands Foundation board member who retired as BLM California state director in 2015, said that based on visits to some of the sites and conversations that he had with the employees of the office, it is clear that they do not have the resources.

“I know that because it’s in the DNA of the agency, the people in those field offices will do everything in their power to keep it together. But what I see is proof that in some places there just isn’t enough [resources] any convenient way to do it,” he said. “It has to come back to some sort of reasonable level of funding if we expect the conservation results to happen, and we should.”

Even though Congressional funding has remained virtually unchanged for most of the past twelve years, more and more land has been added to the system.

Congress added wilderness, and several presidents issued national monument proclamations, adding public lands to the system.

Since fiscal year 2010, when congressional funding for the program dropped dramatically during the economy-sapping recession, 10 million acres have been added to the National Conservation Lands system, Feinman said.

“There has always been a cognitive difference between wanting to protect these areas and allocating the resources to do so,” he said. “That’s what Congress needs to fix.”

fight for respect

BLM’s National Conservation Lands program has always had criticism in Congress.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt created the National Landscape Conservation System in June 2000 – during the final days of President Bill Clinton’s administration – without congressional authorization.

The fact that the first national monument placed in the system was Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah didn’t help matters. Clinton established the monument via a 1996 presidential proclamation despite strong opposition from the state’s GOP-led congressional delegation.

Over the years, Republican lawmakers have regularly questioned why BLM, an agency with a multipurpose mandate, should manage land for conservation and future generations when the National Park Service and other agencies do. already.

The George W. Bush administration tried to limit the program’s expansion by opposing several new national monuments — even as Congress, during Bush’s two terms, consistently allocated the most funding to the program over the course of of its nearly 22-year history.

The program received a big boost in March 2009 when Congress passed the National Landscape Conservation System Act as part of an omnibus public lands bill that established 2.1 million acres of new wilderness areas. This essentially codified National Conservation Lands into federal law, stating that they are designed to “conserve, protect, and restore nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values ​​for the benefit of present and future generations.” “.

But that boost came amid a crippling recession undermining the country’s economic strength. Congress cut funding for the program nearly in half in the fiscal year 2010 budget — to $31 million from $60 million in fiscal year 2009, records show.

Funding for the program would remain at $31 million for the next five budget cycles, increasing only to $36 million in the Obama administration’s last two budget cycles.

Funding is far from returning to pre-recession levels.

The result has been that BLM does not have the resources or personnel to adequately manage national conservation lands, as well as other culturally significant sites in the office’s custody, Feinman said.

Feinman pointed to vandalism on ancient petroglyphs discovered in January at La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs west of Santa Fe, NM, which had been spray painted with graffiti. Volunteers who partnered with BLM to monitor cultural resources at the site discovered the vandalism.

“That’s what happens when the agency doesn’t have the resources and the people to manage that land,” Feinman said.

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