Photo credit: CEBImagery, flickr.
The last Congress was a mixed bag for conservation, but it ended with a big victory, as Congress protected over 1 million acres of public lands (thanks in large part to the members and supporters of The Wilderness Society making their voices heard).
Since taking office on Jan 3, 2015, the 114th Congress has seemingly done its best to banish the memory of that triumph.
Reflecting on April 15, Congress’ 100th day in session, these are just a few of the anti-conservation attacks that have been launched by lawmakers in Washington, DC:
- Audacious efforts to sell off public lands for drilling, mining and logging, bringing a special interest-led regional scourge on to the national stage. The Senate recently passed an amendment that would support ongoing efforts by some states and local governments to seize federal public lands, including national wildlife refuges, national forests and some wilderness. Those lands could then potentially be closed for hiking, camping or other outdoor recreation—and opened up to private interests for oil and gas drilling, mining, logging and other development.
- Nine separate attempts to weaken the Antiquities Act, making it harder to protect future national parks and monuments. Since its approval by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, that law has been used on a bipartisan basis by 16 presidents, serving as an important contingency plan for when Congress is unable to act swiftly to protect public lands—oftentimes even in the face of broad public support. Numerous recent attacks on the Antiquities Act threaten to knock us back to where we started: with public lands conservation measures languishing in Congress, and natural and historical landmarks cherished by the American people unable to get the protection they deserve.
- A Senate amendment that would have removed protection from all “wilderness study areas” (WSAs) managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) unless they were designated as full-fledged wilderness by Congress within one year. This would have effectively allowed legislators in Washington, DC—who have protected little wilderness in recent history—to “run out the clock” on important conservation bills.
- Proposed budget cuts that would erode the quality of our parks, forests and other protected wildlands. After years of fiscal neglect by the federal government, our country’s conservation programs need their funding restored, as detailed in a recent report from The Wilderness Society and other groups. Nonetheless, the House and Senate Budget Committees have proposed federal budgets for the coming year that would result in drastic spending cuts for conservation and potentially reduce access to public lands.
- A plan to create major roadblocks for programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and Forest Legacy Program, which secure access to popular public lands for sportsmen, recreationists and all Americans. The LWCF is responsible for protecting some of our nation’s most iconic natural and historic landmarks, from national parks and wildlife refuges to local parks in our own neighborhoods, and an analysis of the return on investment from LWCF funds found that every $1 invested in it returns $4 in economic value.
- A proposal to terminate the National Landscape Conservation System, a BLM office that manages millions of acres of wildlands and historic sites. Through this department, the BLM oversees hundreds of sites collectively known as the National Conservation Lands, including 20 national monuments and more than 200 wilderness areas. Shutting it down would make it even harder for the shorthanded BLM to protect these places for future generations.
- Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)’s promotion of oil and gas development in sensitive wildlife habitat like Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even as the FWS recommended that Congress designate parts of it as wilderness.
- Multiple efforts to force more oil and gas drilling on federal lands—ignoring health and environmental safeguards and putting communities and wildlands at risk.
These attacks are starkly at odds with the will of most Americans. A recent survey found that about 90 percent of voters of all political stripes support permanently protecting some public lands like wilderness. Similarly, 69 percent oppose measures to stop the protection of public lands like national parks, monuments and wilderness areas.
Every single Congress between 1966 and 2009 designated new wilderness areas, but the 112th Congress ended the streak. As we have worked to get lawmakers back on track—culminating in our December 2014 victory—you have made your voices heard loud and clear in Washington, DC, helping to thaw the conservation "chill." This is no time to let Congress get back to bad habits and run roughshod over our American conservation heritage.