A conservation-minded President? A look at Obama’s first 100 days in office

Following eight years of unbalanced, exploitative policies toward wildlands, the opening days of President Barack Obama’s administration appear to be a promising start in a new era of wildlands and wildlife protection.

In his first 100 days, President Obama reversed or put on hold a number of misguided Bush administration policies, signaling a more balanced use of public lands. He also put muscle behind campaign promises to reinstate science in federal decision making and to advance a clean energy future.

Still, the administration has yet to decide the fate of a number of large conservation issues, including: the future of the federal oil shale program; drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf; future protections for roadless forests; and plans to build a habitat-damaging road through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Below is a run-down of Obama's first 100 days. Learn about developments on these issues by signing up for our free WildAlert e-mails.

Obama actions since Jan. 20

January:

  • Utah oil and gas leases put on hold:
    The Department of the Interior withdraws from sale 77 disputed oil and gas leases sold by the Bush administration on environmentally sensitive lands in Utah. Some of the leases were in areas proposed for designation as wilderness.
  • Closed–door policy overturned:
    The president signs executive orders that would improve the transparency of rulemaking. These orders require his staff to consider the non-market benefits of rulemaking, such as the environment and public health.

February:

  • “Look before you lease” policy:
    The Bureau of Land Management directs land managers to more carefully review environmentally sensitive tracts of federal lands proposed for oil and gas development before offering them for lease sale, especially if such tracts contained wilderness values, sensitive species, or other environmentally significant attributes.
  • Oil shale lease solicitation withdrawn:
    Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announces the withdrawal of a Bush administration proposal to issue more oil shale “research, development and demonstration” leases in the West, seeking more public input about this energy- and water-intensive fuel source before any decisions on further leasing are made.
  • Greater funding for conservation proposed:
    The administration proposes budget for fiscal year 2010 calling for increased appropriations for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, national wildlife refuges, national parks, wildfire management, and other environmental programs that have suffered from chronic underfunding.
  • Off-shore leasing delayed:
    The Secretary of the Interior extends the comment period on the Bush administration’s hastily prepared Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing program, and prepares to embark upon an April series of public meetings on the East, West, and Gulf Coasts to solicit more public input before making any new OCS leasing decisions.

March:

  • More than 2 million acres of wilderness designated:
    The president signs the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, designating more than two million acres of federal public lands as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The law also codifies the National Landscape Conservation System and designates 86 wild and scenic rivers.
  • Road through key Alaska wildlife habitat in the air:
    The president’s signing of the omnibus lands bill was a tremendous boon for wildlands, but unfortunately, the legislation — actually a collection of bills — also includes plans for a land exchange between Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and the state of Alaska, which would set a dangerous precedent of removing wilderness designation from 206 acres of the refuge’s most important wildlife habitat. Salazar has the option to stop this harmful project through administrative action.
  • Bush’s northern spotted owl plan withdrawn:
    The Obama administration asks a federal district court for permission to withdraw the Bush administration’s deeply flawed northern spotted owl recovery plan and revision of that species’ critical habitat.
  • Energy/climate change task force formed, renewable energy given priority:
    Secretary of the Interior Salazar issues a secretarial order making environmentally-sensitive renewable energy development a top priority on public lands. The order establishes a task force led out of the Secretary’s office that will identify preferred areas on the public lands for renewable energy development.
  • Gray wolf removed from the endangered species list:
    The administration takes the gray wolf off the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho, while leaving the predator under federal protection in Wyoming. The administration said that wolf populations and management prescriptions met the original goals for the recovery program established by the Clinton administration in Montana and Idaho.

April:

  • Endangered Species Act revived:
    The administration reinstates requirements that federal agencies consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before undertaking projects that might affect threatened or endangered plants and animals.
  • EPA finds greenhouse gasses a danger to public health:
    The EPA issues a draft finding that, under the Clean Air Act, greenhouse gasses are a danger to public health and welfare, the first step in regulating these pollutants under that act.
  • Coal strip-mining precautions reinstated:
    Before departing office, the Bush administration gutted a federal regulation adopted during the Reagan administration that prohibited coal strip mining activities within 100 feet of streams. Secretary of the Interior Salazar announces that the 100-foot buffer zone rule would be reinstated.
  • Roadless forests await protections:
    Bush-era attempts to weaken roadless forest protections were being decided by several federal court cases this spring. There is a great opportunity for the Obama administration to protect some 60 million acres of land by strengthening the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The Department of Agriculture should adopt the conservation community’s call for a “time out” — declaring that all destructive projects considered for roadless areas be approved only by the secretary directly.

There is still much to be done to solve our nation’s entwined environmental, economic and climate challenges. Looking forward to the next 100 days and beyond, the Obama administration has a great opportunity to advance cleaner sustainable energy policies, preserve our roadless forests, protect our public lands from global warming, and ensure adequate funding for conservation programs.

photo: Black Ridge, recently designated as Wilderness in the Washington County Wilderness, Utah. Photo by Ray Bloxham, Courtesy SUWA.

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